Orders to keep all captive birds and poultry indoors will be extended across the whole of England to try to contain a virulent strain of bird flu that is threatening to wipe out some wild species.
The largest seabird in the northern Atlantic has a wingspan of nearly six feet.
From Yorkshire to St Kilda off Scotland’s northwest coast, birdwatchers gather to see it dive from heights of 30 metres, and hit the water at up to 60 miles per hour.
But now a virus tearing through Britain’s birds threatens the mighty gannet with extinction.
“Washed in with the tide, a dead gannet. A distressingly common site. Over the last couple of weeks here at Foxton, near Alnmouth, and on many of our region’s beaches…”ITV News
In October last year, birds began shaking, convulsing, or showing signs of confusion as they flew.
Then, they started dying.
“Gannets, guillemots, kittiwakes and puffins have been found dead right around the coast of the UK from the Hebrides right down to the Isles of Scilly. In the domestic bird population – chickens, ducks, turkeys – around three and a half million have been culled.”BBC Radio 4
The culprit? A new strain of avian flu, called H5N1.
It’s the deadliest bird flu outbreak that Britain has ever seen. And it’s spreading through wild birds like gannets, but also captive birds like chickens and turkeys.
Millions have already been culled to control it, but the virus is still spreading… which is why the government has extended measures to contain it.
Avian flu is endemic in birds, which means it returns every year during the winter months. But this year has been different.
Here’s Katie-Jo Luxton, the Director of Global Conservation at the RSPB nature conservation charity, speaking to the BBC’s Today programme.
“It’s really very concerning. We do want more action to understand the disease. We think at the moment we don’t know anywhere near enough about this disease, which appears to have become certainly more virulent and has stayed with us all year round for the first time ever.”BBC Radio 4
Normally, cases go down during the summer months, but this year new outbreaks were recorded throughout June, July and August for the first time.
Experts aren’t sure why this is, though some say it could be down to a slight mutation in the virus.
While the government maintains that the risk to human health is very low, they’re concerned about the impact of the outbreak.
“If bird flu, for example, gets into turkeys, that could cause holy carnage. You know, that could cause real supply chain issues in the run up to Christmas time. You know, the realities of it are quite severe.”Sky News
And the threat to wild birds could have a serious impact on the balance of Britain’s natural habitats.
Every winter millions of birds migrate to the UK.
But this winter it means the spread of this more virulent strain could be accelerated – and the consequences of that could last for decades.
“We’ve seen declines of between 55 and 80 per cent of the population of the Great Skua in the UK and we hold two-thirds of the world population. So that species has gone straight onto the red list. These birds are long lived; you’re talking about birds that don’t even start breeding for five years and they may only have one chick per year. So it might take decades before some of these populations recover.”Sky News
The government has raised the national risk of bird flu in wild birds to ‘very high’.
Defra, that’s the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, introduced a bird flu “prevention zone” across the whole of Britain.
But they’re now introducing stricter measures. From next week, all captive birds and poultry will have to be kept indoors until further notice.
They stress that eggs and poultry are still safe to eat. And if you come across a struggling bird in the wild, Katie-Jo Luxton has some advice.
“We’re really urging people to make sure their dogs are on leads and not to approach dead or dying birds, because that can cause further stress, but also because some mammals have now picked up this disease as well. So please take extreme care and we’re saying to the members of the public: do not touch them. Make sure you report them to the Defra helpline.”BBC Radio 4
If the new measures aren’t successful in stopping the spread then the sound of gannets on Britain’s coastline could be dulled – or may even disappear forever.
This episode was written and mixed by Patricia Clarke.