How together we can protect wild birds from Avian Flu

Guide
A deceased gannet washed up on the shore in Shetland

An unprecedented outbreak of Avian Flu is killing thousands of wild birds. Scotland is being seriously hit, with widespread deaths of great skuas on many of Scotland’s coasts and islands including Shetland, Orkney, the Firth of Forth and the Western Isles. Gannets are dying at some of their key colonies and there are also reports of the virus killing great numbers of Sandwich and Arctic terns, eider ducks and guillemots. The devastation has spread around the UK, with more than 1000 confirmed cases in England and confirmed cases in Wales and Northern Ireland too.

A deceased gannet washed up on the shore in Shetland

The latest deaths follow the devastating outbreak on the Solway estuary last year which saw more than a third of the Svalbard breeding population of barnacle geese lost.

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 mostly 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 many of Scotland’s coasts and islands including Shetland, Orkney, the Firth of Forth and the Western Isles. 

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 – the world’s largest gannet colony.   There are also reports of the virus killing great numbers of Sandwich and Arctic terns, eider ducks and guillemots. In recent days more and more dead guillemots have been washing up along Scotland’s south west coast and the Argyll Islands.  

The devastation continues to spread with confirmed cases in many parts of England including terns at our Minsmere and Coquet Island nature reserves. There are also confirmed cases in seabirds at Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland and several species in Wales.  
 
This follows the severe outbreak of the virus on the Solway Firth earlier in the year where more than 10,000 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?

The UK’s seabird populations are of global significance. For example, Scotland is home to 56% of the world’s great skua population and 20% of the world’s northern gannet.

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 of wild and domestic birds, carcasses to be safely disposed of and vulnerable bird populations protected. We also want measures put in place to stop the unnecessary disturbance of wild birds affected by the virus. 

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.

You can also help us call for the UK governments to develop a response plan.   

  • We want to see coordinated surveillance and testing of wild and domestic birds. 
  • We want carcasses to be safely disposed of and vulnerable bird populations protected.
  • We want measures put in place to stop the unnecessary disturbance of wild birds affected by the virus.
  • Share this message to help stop the spread of this deadly disease.

If we want to help our seabirds to be stronger against disease in future, we must protect our coasts and seas . You can help us to do this by becoming an RSPB campaigner.

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 15 July 2022.