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Bird flu could have a ‘devastating impact’ on UK’s seabirds, RSPB warns

Coquet Island off the Northumberland coast where hundreds of birds have died (RSPB/PA)
Coquet Island off the Northumberland coast where hundreds of birds have died (RSPB/PA)

An outbreak of a virulent form of bird flu is having a “devastating impact” on the UK’s seabirds, the RSPB has said.

The conservation charity spoke out amid concerns for the UK’s only roseate tern breeding colony, and separately, following the National Trust closing an important wildlife haven to human visitors.

The RSPB said the strain of bird flu originated in east Asia and has killed tens of thousands of wild birds across the world.

Hundreds have died on Coquet Island, off the Northumberland coast, and the nearby Farne Islands, which are managed by the National Trust.

Puffins on Coquet Island
Coquet Island off the coast of Northumberland (David Wootton/RSPB/PA)

Samples sent to Defra have now tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).

Jim Wardill, RSPB England operations director, said: “Bird flu is having a devastating impact on our seabirds – a population already under huge pressure from human impacts including climate change, lack of prey fish, deaths through entanglement in fishing gear and development pressure.

Farne Islands puffin census
National Trust rangers will stay on the Farne Islands to monitor the outbreak (Owen Humphreys/PA)

“Action must be taken now, with UK governments leading on developing and implementing national response plans for HPAI in wild birds.

“It is vital to have a coordinated approach to surveillance and testing, disturbance minimisation and public messaging, along with a joined-up strategy regarding arrangements for the poultry sector.”

Coquet Island is home to around 160 pairs of roseate terns – the UK’s only breeding colony of the species which almost became extinct in the 19th century.

It is closed to the public, making it a haven for wildlife.

Farne Islands puffin census
The Farne Islands usually attract 45,000 human visitors a year (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Some 20 miles north, the Farnes are another of England’s most important seabird colonies and are home to around 200,000 birds.

Around 45,000 people visit the islands on boat trips every year to take in views of up to 23 species, including 43,000 puffin pairs, as well as a large colony of grey seals.

The tourist trips out of Seahouses will continue, but visitors will no longer be allowed to land on the Farnes from Sunday.

Farne Islands puffin census
The Farne Islands are home to a large colony of puffins (Owen Humphreys/PA)

Simon Lee, general manager for the Farne Islands said: “While we have no confirmed test results from the islands, we are now starting to see the terribly sad and distressing impact of avian influenza on our internationally important and threatened seabirds who make the islands their home.

“Seabirds nesting in dense colonies, most of which are threatened, such as Arctic terns, are particularly vulnerable now as they have returned to the islands in their thousands to breed, nesting in close proximity to each other.

“Our ranger teams work tirelessly to monitor and protect these colonies but due to finding significant numbers of dead birds we simply have no other choice but to close the islands. 

Farne Islands puffin census
Numbers of the ever-popular puffins have already been affected by climate change (Owen Humphreys/PA)

“We understand how many people love to visit the islands but we must do everything we can to protect and to try to help these much-loved seabirds by limiting the spread of the disease.
“The effect of the disease on the colonies we care for could be devastating due to many species having low reproduction rates, which means the loss of adult birds has a huge impact on populations being able to recover.”

Ranger teams will remain on the islands to monitor the outbreak.

The UK Health Security Agency has advised that the risk to humans is very low, but people should not touch sick or dead birds.

If found, people should report any dead birds to Defra on 0345 9335577.

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