How together we can protect wild birds from Avian Flu

A deceased gannet washed up on the shore in Shetland

An unprecedented outbreak of Avian Flu is killing thousands of wild birds in Scotland. Shetland is the latest area to hit particularly badly, but there have been cases reported on many of Scotland’s islands and presumed cases in England too. The latest deaths follow the devastating outbreak on the Solway estuary last year which saw more than a third of the area’s wintering Svalbard barnacle goose population lost.

A deceased gannet washed up on the shore in Shetland

In this video recorded in June 2022, Kevin Kelly from RSPB Scotland talks about how the outbreak on Shetland has affected him and why it's crucial to act now to protect wild birds as best we can.

Warning: This film contains images of dead birds.

What is Avian Flu and how is it affecting birds? 

Avian Flu, or bird flu, is an infectious disease which spreads from bird to bird through contact with infected saliva and droppings. There have been several outbreaks of Avian Flu in the UK in recent years, but the vast majority have been in domestic poultry farms.

This latest series of outbreaks is unprecedented – the largest ever in the UK – and it seems to be affecting many types of bird. There have been reports of widespread deaths of great skuas on Shetland, Fair Isle, Orkney, the Western Isles, Handa, the Flannan Isles and St Kilda. Gannets have been hit at some of their key colonies, including Noss in Shetland, Troup Head in Northeast Scotland and Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. There are also reports of sandwich and Arctic terns dying as well as numbers of guillemots at a colony on the Mull of Galloway.

This follows the severe outbreak on the Solway Firth earlier in the year where more than 4,000 birds died. These geese, which migrate from Svalbard in arctic Norway, were seen falling from the sky in distress and lines of dead birds were washed up on beaches.


What does this mean for our seabirds?

Britain's seabird populations are of global significance. For example, the UK is home to 56% of the world’s gannet population and Scotland has 60% of the world’s great skuas.

These and other seabirds are already under massive pressure from climate change, lack of prey fish, deaths through entanglement in fishing gear and developments along our coasts. The impact of avian flu could hit them particularly hard as seabirds tend to live for a long time and take longer to reach breeding age. They also usually have fewer chicks.

This means deaths from avian flu could further decrease declining numbers and that any recovery from the disease would take far longer.


What should UK governments be doing?

The avian flu which is causing these birds to die is a highly mutable and deadly new form which originated in poultry farming. 

The RSPB are calling for UK governments to develop a response plan urgently. We want to see coordinated surveillance and testing, disturbance minimisation, carcass disposal and biosecurity to stop the spread.

In the longer term, we want much higher importance being given to prioritising and funding seabird conservation. This would help make our seabird populations more resilient to these diseases and the other challenges they face.


What can I do to help?

Although most of the cases have been barnacle geese and seabirds, other species have been affected and there are concerns the disease could spread. To help prevent the spread good hygiene is key. Cleaning bird feeders and feeding stations weekly and changing bird drinking and bathing water regularly can make a big difference.

Find out about the best ways to clean your bird feeders here.

What should I do if I find a dead bird? 

Please do not touch any sick or dead birds. If you find any dead waterfowl (swans, ducks, geese), any seabirds or birds of prey, please report them to the Defra helpline on 03459 335577 or in Northern Ireland to DAERA on 0300 200 7840. Please also see our dedicated page for Avian Influenza updates

If you have a dog and are walking in an area which is thought to have cases of avian flu, it is best to keep them on a lead. This will reduce the risk of the dog and you coming into contact with the disease.

This is an update to the original webpage. Republished on 10 June 2022.