By Richard Price

With attention over the past two years focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, you may have missed the news of another virus that is spreading round the country – a new strain of avian flu known as the H5N1,

Hundreds of thousands of birds have had to be culled as the UK battles what has been called the “largest ever” outbreak of avian flu.  And this is despite a severe lock-down which has meant that no domestic birds or poultry are allowed out in the open where they could mix with wild birds.


Dead barnacle goose

CREDIT: RSPB Scotland

Open Cages, an animal welfare charity, obtained footage of thousands of birds in Lincolnshire being disposed of after they were gassed to death. The organisation puts the figure of birds killed in the outbreak as high as up to 2 million. They are calling on the UK government to ban factory farming which, they argue, facilitates the spread of deadly diseases like avian flu. The charity says that poor biosecurity and animal husbandry are reasons for annual outbreaks. Bird viruses can be present in air samples up to 110 metres from infected farms.

The Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) have an interactive disease map that shows control zones. Currently, there are about sixty within which keepers have to keep their birds indoors, away from wild birds, and follow biosecurity advice.

Highly Contagious

Avian Bird Flu is nothing new – indeed there tend to be outbreaks each year but the H5N1 virus – which is highly contagious and can destroy poultry flocks – was first discovered in North Yorkshire at a premises near Thirsk last November, and in Lincolnshire at a site near Alford in December.

One person is confirmed to have contracted the disease and is currently self-isolating, though public health officials do not believe there is any evidence of ‘onward spread’ and say that human to human transmission of avian flu is very rare and so the risk to the public is extremely low.

However the new outbreak of the virus does pose a serious threat to poultry farms – and to the wild bird population – especially migratory birds. Ten per cent of the global population of barnacle geese recently died in the Solway Firth prompting the RSPB to call for an emergency moratorium on shooting wildfowl there. Although the barnacle goose is a protected species, when these birds flee from the noise of hunters’ guns it reduces valuable energy and causes them to move to new areas and mix with uninfected birds. 

No Ban on Hunting

Scottish ministers rejected the idea of a ban on hunting, saying they were aware of the problems but planned no further measures at this stage.  The latest population counts of the Svalbard barnacle goose show a drop in numbers from 43,703 in November last year to 27,133 this month.

It’s not just avian flu that is having a devastating effect on the numbers of wild birds. Greenfinches were once a common sight almost everywhere in the country. Their range has contracted due to intensive agriculture. Recently, populations have plummeted because of the disease Trichomonosis. It has also been found in chaffinches, house sparrows, dunnocks, siskins, and great tits. The disease is caused by the protozoan parasite Trichomonas gallinae, which has always affected caged birds. It has now become common in wild birds. The effects of the disease have been evident every year since the summer of 2005 with finches in Britain declining rapidly as a result. Trichomonosis is spread through contaminated food and drinking water and when birds regurgitate food to feed young chicks or fledgelings.

Garden Birdwatching

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) organise an annual event, the Big Garden Birdwatch (BGB). Participants list the number of garden birds that land in their gardens during an hour and submit the records online. The data has proved to be invaluable; scientists use it to gain access to the state of UK birds. Researchers for the British Trust for Ornithology [BTO] and other conservation organisations are also collaborating with the garden wildlife projects in establishing the impact of disease on bird populations.

UK birds are assessed by scientists who place them into one of three categories of conservation importance: Green, Amber or Red. 2021 data showed greenfinches to be rapidly declining, as a consequence the bird jumped directly from the Green List (Species of the least critical group) to the Red List (species needing urgent action). Usually, birds transition through the Amber status on their route to Red.


Disappearing Greenfinches

The greenfinch is a small bird of the finch family with a chunky flesh-coloured bill and forked tail. Its plumage is predominately green. Males are olive green with a yellow-edge to the primary feathers on the edges of their wings and base of the tail. Juveniles are browner and have a mottled back. Greenfinches are a beautiful sight and are pleasant to listen to. The song is a series of jupp sounds that are finished off with a trill. Their diet consists of seeds, berries, nuts and insects.


Bad Farming

In both America and the UK animal welfare groups have criticised modern poultry farms. The three main criticisms are: poultry are bred for fast growth causing suffering and pain along with organ failures; living conditions are crowded with tens of thousands of birds crammed into industrial incubators. Slaughter methods are considered cruel, shackled upside down by the legs while still alive. The first two criticisms create optimum conditions for the spread of disease.


You Can Help

People can help slow the spread by cleaning their garden bird feeders once a week or whenever they change the seed.  You can temporarily halt feeding if ill birds are spotted. During the outbreak drinking water should be changed daily.

The RSPB have advised people to keep their pets away if dead birds are found and not to touch any dead or diseased birds – but do report them.

Sick or diseased birds can be reported using The Garden Wildlife Health (GWH) website www.gardenwildlifehealth.org/gwh-database. Or, if they are gulls or wildfowl please call the Defra Helpline (03459 33 55 77)


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