Avian influenza outbreak in Farne Islands threatens ‘unprecedented wildlife tragedy’ | Bird flu

An outbreak of bird flu in one of the UK’s most important habitats that could kill tens of thousands of seabirds has been described as an “unprecedented wildlife tragedy”.

Rangers operating in the Farney Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, have donned protective suits and have so far collected more than 3,000 dead birds for incineration.

However, there are fears that several thousand more may have succumbed to disease and fallen off cliffs in the North Sea.

The Farnes, sponsored by the National Trust, is an internationally important home to 23 species, including puffins, with 200,000 birds living there.

Cliff-nesting birds appear to be hardest hit by the outbreak of bird flu, with guillemots, ketos and baby puffins — known as pufflings — among those who have been cured.

The Rangers work in the box to remove the carcasses of birds to prevent further contamination. For their safety, they wore white suits, gloves and masks.

The islands have been closed to visitors for more than three weeks as officials try to stem the spread of disease during the birds’ breeding period.

Among the victims so far is an eight-year-old Arctic tern that would have traveled from the Varney Islands to Antarctica and then back eight times during its lifetime, covering 144,000 miles.

A 16-year-old kittiwake that was cordoned off was discovered on the islands in 2006.

Annually, 45,000 people make the trip to Farnes, but the islands were closed to visitors at the beginning of this month.

Farnes General Manager Simon Lee said: “The well-being of our staff, volunteers and visitors is our highest priority as we navigate this unprecedented tragedy for the islands’ wildlife.

“The Varney Islands have been taken care of by the National Trust for just under 100 years, and there are no records of anything potentially harmful to already threatened seabird colonies.

“The Farne Islands is a National Nature Reserve and home to nearly 200,000 seabirds, including guillemots, kitewicks, razorbills and shags as well as arctic terns and puffins.”

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This strain of bird flu originated in East Asia and affected local flocks in the UK during the winter. It has since spread across the country to infect wild birds.

It is spread when birds come into direct contact with an infected bird, its feces or body fluids, or indirectly through food and water.

The risk to humans is considered very low and people are rarely affected. The National Trust has called on the government to act.

Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration at the Trust, said: “This disease is undoing decades of hard work on nature restoration and undermining the government’s own goals to reverse the decline of our threatened species and improve their habitats.

The scale of this disaster requires an urgent national response plan to the virus in wild birds.

“We need a more coordinated approach to ensure effective monitoring, surveillance and reporting to support research into the effects of this deadly disease on our wild birds across the UK.”

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