Press Release

RSPB NI calls for urgent action following confirmation of bird flu in wild birds at Belfast WoW

RSPB NI is asking Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to put in place a Wild Bird Response Plan as soon as possible, to minimise the impact of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) on wild bird populations which are already facing multiple pressures such as habitat loss and the impact of climate change.

RSPB NIPosted 5 min read
  • Confirmed outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) at RSPB Belfast’s Window on Wildlife Reserve in Belfast Harbour.
  • Urgent action required from Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) to develop and implement a HPAI Wild Bird Response Plan.
  • Large numbers of deaths in black-headed gulls across United Kingdom.

We’re really concerned about the impacts on all species affected by HPAI but mostly seabirds, many of which are of high conservation concern due to declines. Seabirds nest in colonies and are long-lived but produce small numbers of young each year, so HPAI can spread quickly, and it can take a long time for colonies devastated by HPAI to be restored.

Anne-Marie McDevitt, Head of Species for RSPB NI, said “Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu, also known as bird flu, is a horrible disease. It causes breathing problems, tremors, diarrhoea and ultimately death in the affected species, and is really distressing to see. As this recent outbreak is happening in the middle of the nesting season, it is killing both adults and chicks. Wildlife is already under a huge amount of pressure from habitat destruction, climate change and things like overfishing, and now we have diseases like Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, originating from intensive poultry farming in Asia, adding even more pressure.”

Northern Ireland is the only country in the UK that does not have a Wild Bird Response Plan for Avian Flu, despite Environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (eNGOs) requesting one for over a year. This needs to be sorted as soon as possible.

RSPB NI are calling upon NIEA to invite key organisations, including the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), the Public Health Agency and other eNGOs to develop a Wild Bird Response Plan. This plan will need to be robust, covering everything from carcass collection and testing, biosecurity measures, messaging and advice, through to minimising disturbance during outbreaks and understanding more about the interfaces between wild and domestic birds.

Anne-Marie continued, “As well as a Wild Bird Response Plan, we need government to invest over the long-term. Out of 240 countries in the world, Northern Ireland is 12th from the bottom in terms of how much of our nature is left. We need a dedicated Seabird Conservation Strategy and robust climate, marine and agriculture policies that will help deliver for nature and climate, to restore our wildlife, and ensure that it is more resilient to threats such as HPAI.”

HPAI is a virus that occurs naturally in wild and domestic birds, but in 1996 a more lethal highly pathogenic strain evolved in domestic geese in East Asia. Since then, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza strains have been circulating the globe, with devastating effects on both poultry and wild birds.

Normally a disease of the winter months, HPAI has become more common throughout the year and is now impacting birds in the nesting season, killing both adults and young. Last summer saw wide-scale outbreaks in wild birds in Great Britain, in some cases causing drastic impacts on whole colonies of seabirds and their young, with Terns, Gannets and Great Skuas being those most affected. Across this side of the Irish Sea, outside of Gannet colonies, we’ve not seen the same level of bird flu in wild birds, but this could be set to change. Black-headed Gulls have been the species most affected this summer in Great Britain, and just last week RSPB NI had their first outbreak in black-headed gulls at their Belfast Window on Wildlife reserve.

As a precautionary measure, the reserve has been closed until further notice.