With dead kittiwakes and mummified puffins littering our shores, the ruinous nature of this wildlife tragedy has never been more obvious
A pall hangs over the whinstone rocks of Inner Farne, as half a dozen or so rangers in white hazmat suits fan across the Northumbrian isle. Amid crashing waves they work in silence, carefully retrieving the corpses of birds between clumps of white sea campion – a flower that in folklore has long been regarded as a harbinger of death.
They scoop up the bodies of kittiwakes, juvenile gulls and a mummified puffin. Some decomposing birds are floating in the saltwater pools that form on the rocky shore. A few solitary adult gulls are dotted about: huddled down, shaking slightly and seemingly unperturbed by the humans in their midst. These, the rangers say, are as sure signs of infection as a red cross painted on a door.
In total, over the course of a few hours, 412 birds are collected using litter pickers and left in plastic rubble sacks by the island’s wooden jetty, to be ferried back to the mainland for incineration. Overlooking this bleak scene is the Chapel of St Cuthbert, originally built in the 14th century (and restored in the 19th century) in honour of the former Bishop of Lindisfarne who lived as a hermit on Inner Farne for years and died here in 687. Famously, St Cuthbert formed a close relationship with the seabirds that for centuries have called these islands home. He prohibited the collection of eggs from nests and when squalls blew in over the North Sea ensured shelter for the birds on the island. The eider ducks, which still nest here, are even known as ‘Cuddy’s ducks’ in tribute to the saint.
Over recent months, however, this sanctuary has become a morgue as a lethal and highly contagious strain of avian flu has decimated breeding bird populations as part of the most severe outbreak ever recorded in the UK and elsewhere. Across the entire Farnes, an archipelago of two dozen or so islands (depending on the tides) cleaved out of chunks of volcanic rock, nearly 5,700 dead birds have been collected over the course of this summer.
With many birds perishing out at sea, it is feared the final toll could be up to 10 times higher.
This is hoped to be one of the last collections of the year carried out by the National Trust rangers who are custodians of these islands. The bulk of breeding birds – which at the height of the season in July can number as many as 200,000, making the Farnes one of Britain’s most important nesting habitats and an internationally important habitat for 23 species – have now departed for their winter migration.
Compared with the caterwauling peak of summer, all is relatively quiet on the Farnes. But as species scatter to such disparate climes as Antarctica or central and western Africa, the concern is that another even more devastating wave of the virus will return with them next year. Perhaps, even, the birds will simply not return at all.
‘It is eerie when they leave,’ says one of the rangers, 22-year-old Rosie Parsons, who after a long morning collecting birds on Inner Farne has the imprint of goggles creased upon her face. ‘If that [silence] was to be when they should be here, that would be terrible.’
Various types of avian flu have flared up over the 19th and 20th centuries in what was traditionally termed ‘fowl plague’. The H5N1 virus (the highly pathogenic strain that is behind this latest outbreak of the flu) was first identified on a Chinese goose farm in Guangdong province in 1996. The following year the virus spawned in chicken farms in Hong Kong, and in the early 2000s it spread across neighbouring countries in eastern Asia before moving into Africa, Europe, the Middle East and North America, establishing itself in both poultry farms and populations of wild birds.
In 2006 the dreaded H5N1 was confirmed in Britain after being detected in a dead swan floating in a harbour in the village of Cellardyke, Fife. By that time the virus had already caused more than 100 human deaths across the world and was feared to be the source of the next pandemic.
Ultimately, this zoonotic potential for the virus to leap from animals into humans has not yet come to pass on the catastrophic scale feared by some scientists. However, it has remained shifting between avian populations. Typically, bird flu is a winter virus and one that has a far greater impact on farmed birds.
But at some point in 2021, H5N1 mutated again.
One of the world’s most important seabird breeding grounds, the remote islands scattered along Britain’s wild and jagged coastline were the first to be affected. About eight million seabirds arrive in the UK each spring and summer (roughly a quarter of all European breeding seabirds), numbering some 25 different species. They pack together on towering rock stacks, hundreds of thousands of birds jostling for space; this close-knit communal roosting provides the ideal conditions for a virus to take hold.
For Dr Liz Humphreys, principal seabird ecologist at the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), spring 2021 was when it became clear something was amiss; she started receiving unusual reports of great skuas being found dead around the coasts of Orkney, Shetland and St Kilda, a barren archipelago off the west coast of Scotland, 40 miles from its nearest neighbour.
About 60 per cent of the global population of these skuas, predatory birds with a wingspan stretching nearly four and a half feet, breed in Scotland, so immediately alarm bells rang. However, as Dr Humphreys points out, the deaths remained localised and in relatively low numbers.
Then last December a mass die-off of barnacle geese was detected on the Solway Firth, which separates Cumbria and western Scotland. An estimated 16,000 of the geese, which migrate to the UK every winter from the Arctic, died – about a third of the Solway population. Around the same time, in Rajasthan, India, 300 demoiselle cranes were reported dead; in Israel up to 8,000 moribund wild cranes were also discovered, prompting the country’s environmental protection minister, Tamar Zandberg, to describe the outbreak as the ‘worst blow to wildlife’ in its history.
Any slim hope that this summer might offer a reprieve was rapidly extinguished as mass die-offs began to be reported along the coastline of Britain. At some great skua colonies, Dr Humphreys says, losses of up to 85 per cent have been reported, prompting fears of an extinction-level event. Scientists monitoring Bass Rock, the world’s largest colony of gannets in the Firth of Forth, normally home to 150,000 of the birds, have also recorded a collapse in populations.
The casualties have littered Britain’s coastlines. In September, dog walkers in Cornwall were warned to steer clear of any corpses as more than 50 gannets washed up on a two-mile stretch of beach. In total the new strain of the virus has wiped out more than 86 million birds across Europe and the US alone. The vast bulk of the number is poultry being culled after an outbreak has been detected in a commercial flock, but even so the current epidemic is by far the largest ever in the northern hemisphere.
‘This is unprecedented,’ says Dr Humphreys. ‘The scale has taken us all by surprise if I’m honest, both in terms of numbers and area affected.’
Seabirds already face a host of pressures even without this deadly disease in their midst. Overfishing, along with warming seas as a result of climate change, pollution, destruction of habitat and predation in their breeding grounds by invasive mammals such as rats, has caused a precipitous decline in seabird populations, estimated by one recent University of Aberdeen study to be as much as 70 per cent over the past half-century. It is feared the additional impact of bird flu may push certain species to the brink.
Seabirds tend to be long-lived (last year, a 45-year-old fulmar was identified on the uninhabited Orkney island of Eynhallow, the oldest of its kind ever recorded), late-breeding and with low productivity. A fulmar, for example, may not lay its first egg until it is 12 years old. According to Dr Humphreys, it will take some species ‘generations’ to come back from the fallout from the virus. ‘If you have a catastrophic loss of adults it is going to affect populations immediately and take decades to recover,’ she explains. ‘It is horrendous. You have to be professional but it is distressing.’
On Inner Farne, the first sign of trouble for Rosie Parsons and her fellow rangers was back in the middle of June. ‘I noticed a couple of Arctic terns sitting on the beach feeling a bit sorry for themselves,’ she recalls. ‘Then some of them started twitching their heads. Then the next day they were dead. That is when we got worried.’
By the beginning of July, the Farne Islands, which normally receive 50,000 visitors in a year, were closed to the public, and they have remained that way ever since. During normal summers the National Trust rangers live on the islands for five days a week and spend their days greeting visitors, managing vegetation and conducting bird surveys. Instead, this year they were given full PPE and told the responsibility for bringing up the bodies would be theirs.
This year has been Parsons’ first as a ranger, having only joined the National Trust in March. Originally from Shropshire, with bright blue eyes and an unceasingly cheerful countenance, she was drawn to work in the North Sea through a great love of the outdoors. She admits the experience of this summer has taken its toll on all of her colleagues. Guillemots and kittiwakes have been particularly badly affected, so too sandwich and common terns. It is thought that up to 50 per cent of the sandwich terns that nest on the islands may have died.
Parsons says her favourite seabirds are shags, admiring them for their beautiful emerald eyes, iridescent plumage and the prominent crest that appears on their heads during mating season. However this year the bird also provided her bleakest memory. One day, while she was marking corpses with paint, she sprayed one shag lying motionless in a gulley, only to discover it was still alive. ‘He started shaking and it was the worst thing,’ she recalls. ‘Just horrible.’
At night, to distract themselves from the seemingly ceaseless task before them, the rangers have watched films, played cards and cooked meals together. When the virus was at its peak, in mid-July, they were out every day collecting birds. Parsons says that with some – in particular hardy gulls – it can take up to five days for them to succumb. ‘Some of them have just been like a walking corpse by the end and you look at them and think – that is a virus doing that to the bird,’ she says.
She remains undaunted and insists that she will be back on the Farnes next summer. But like many, she is concerned about the potential for the virus to spread and further mutate over the coming months. The great wonder of migration – where millions of birds span the globe each spring and autumn, mingling together in different colonies – provides the perfect opportunities for a disease to spread. This is especially the case in seabirds, which congregate together in huge roosts on remote islands.
The head of virology at the Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), Professor Ian Brown, has studied avian flu for more than 30 years. In recent months, he and colleagues have watched the cellular damage caused by H5N1 through microscopes and performed autopsies on the corpses of stricken birds, noting how the virus infects every bodily organ before finally spreading into the brain. ‘It is a plague in birds,’ he tells me bluntly.
Professor Brown insists that the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra, of which the APHA is a part) has a ‘very aggressive policy to control the disease’. But some people have been critical of the lack of urgency in the Government’s response.
For example Gwen Potter, the National Trust’s countryside manager for the Northumberland coast, points out that despite the carnage on the Farne Islands this summer, not a single bird was officially tested for avian flu. She also criticises ‘patchy’ and ‘confusing’ guidance over best practice for collecting birds, which has resulted in decaying corpses being left on the islands for weeks before they could be properly disposed of – meaning scavengers were at risk of contracting the virus, too. Defra issued new guidance on mitigating the impact on wild birds at the end of August, which Potter welcomes, but as she points out, it has come ‘far too late’.
So far the carnage reported in seabird populations and poultry farms is not thought to have spread widely to other species, but there are ominous signs. On the Farnes there has been a confirmed sighting of a sparrowhawk feeding on a seabird carcass and dying a few days later. Elsewhere in the country the virus has been detected in scavenging white-tailed eagles. Scientists in North America have detected the virus in a host of mammals, including an adult female black bear in Canada which was euthanised after developing severe symptoms.
Professor Brown says the APHA is continually tracking the risk of zoonotic transmission, both through genomics (much as virologists have been assessing Covid) and an interactive flu map launched this summer, which charts the progress of cases. Last winter the UK recorded its first ever case of H5N1 detected in a person – a 79-year-old retired engineer from Devon, Alan Gosling, who tended a hobby flock of ducks, keeping 20 inside his home. Gosling did not particularly suffer symptoms but his entire flock was culled. ‘This is a bird virus and it wants to be in a bird,’ stresses Professor Brown. ‘It doesn’t particularly want to be in a human.’
The emergence of H5N1 has thrown a spotlight on industrial poultry farming. Packing tens of thousands of birds into a confined space provides an obvious opportunity for any disease to take hold. While Professor Brown emphasises that the way to get rid of the virus in the long term is to remove it from poultry production, in the UK he says this is less of an issue due to stringent protocols on commercial chicken farms, where the animals are in effect sealed inside and immediately culled following any outbreak. He says there is more of a risk on smallholdings, where poultry are kept in smaller free-range flocks, which mix more freely with wild birds.
Vaccine trials are progressing, he says, but how effective they will be in the long run remains to be seen. Antibodies have also been picked up in some wild birds but how effective they are and whether ‘herd immunity’ could offer a reasonable defence against future outbreaks is, in truth, anyone’s guess.
Already this autumn Avian Influenza Prevention Zones have been implemented throughout Great Britain, requiring poultry keepers to follow strict biosecurity measures to prevent contamination between their flocks and wild birds. A £1.5 million research consortium announced in June and headed up by the APHA is continuing to investigate the virus in an attempt to unpick why it has become so severe and model future outbreaks.
With the autumn migration in full flow, Professor Brown says the working hypothesis among the Government’s scientists is that the birds arriving from last month onwards to over-winter in Britain will in all likelihood be bringing avian flu with them. ‘The big question,’ he says, ‘is will the virus be the same as the one we have got already?’
There have been glimmers of hope. On the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, for example, where scientists from the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) have been monitoring species for nearly 50 years, the virus has proved curiously benign. According to Dr Francis Daunt, group leader of the Coastal Seas Ecology Group at the CEH, H5N1 has been detected in four species on the island, with the only unusual mortality among kittiwakes, of which about 100 have died from a population of three to four thousand. Otherwise, he says, birds that include tens of thousands of puffins have enjoyed ‘a fabulous breeding season’. In August the Isle of May reopened to visitors.
Back on the Farnes, the aforementioned eider ducks, whose association with St Cuthbert has spanned centuries, managed to breed before avian flu took hold.
For Rosie Parsons, hope came only a few weeks ago in the form of three common tern chicks that emerged from the vegetation on Inner Farne. It had been presumed they had completely died out on the island, with only 10 pairs across the whole of the Farnes.
She points out the chicks flying over the Chapel of St Cuthbert, building up strength in their delicate boomerang-shaped wings before embarking on their imminent African migration. She is waiting anxiously for the moment of departure, as she has with every young bird that has successfully fledged, to be safe in the knowledge that at least something has survived. Watching them fly, she says, always gives her the same thought: ‘Yes, you made it.’
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How bird flu is turning Britain's coastlines into killing fields – The Telegraph
With dead kittiwakes and mummified puffins littering our shores, the ruinous nature of this wildlife tragedy has never been more obvious