Avian Flu: What We Can Do

(by Rebecca Gindin-Clarke)

May 2023 update: So far, more than 50,000 wild birds in the UK have been killed by avian flu, double previous estimates. Conservationists are warning that this may mean the extinction of some seabird species.

We are witnessing the potential decimation of seabird populations on a scale that has not been seen before in our lifetimes. We are… gravely concerned for seabird colonies in Ireland.

(Grave Threat to Irish Seabird Colonies from Avian Influenza, Birdwatch Ireland, July 2022)

As the RSPB, Birdwatch Ireland and other organisations have noted, our seabird populations in the UK and Ireland are of global significance. 56% of the world’s Gannet population lives here, for example, and Scotland has 60% of the Great Skuas. Avian flu made it to Rathlin Island in July 2022 and in June 2023, an outbreak among the Black-headed Gull colony closed the RSPB Belfast Window on Wildlife. Meanwhile, as of July 2023, Northern Ireland remains the only UK nation without a Wild Bird Response Plan for avian flu–despite the fact that Environmental Non-Governmental Organisations requesting one for over a year. (Concerned? Contact your MLA!) You can keep updated on the situation by following the RSPB’s dedicated page on the issue.

These are birds whose population is already suffering and under massive pressure as a result of our consumer choices, including:

Seabirds are also typically long-lived, take longer to reach breeding age and have fewer chicks. This means that populations are very sensitive to depletion and cannot ‘bounce back’ easily.

Two people in full-coverage blue medical scrubs, goggles and gloves and carrying a rubbish bin. They are walking away from the camera onto a grassy lawn. Hills make up the background.
RSPB staff removing birds who have died as a result of Avian Influenza, RSPB Mersehead Nature Reserve, January 2022

Industrial farming at fault

“Blaming migratory waterfowl … is clearly no longer a tenable position…Influenza’s infiltration into industrial livestock and poultry is so complete that these farms now act as their own reservoirs [of disease],” he says. “They are their own source.”

Rob Wallace, virologist Factory farms of disease: how industrial chicken production is breeding the next pandemic

Some have been eager to continue business as usual, claiming that migratory birds are the cause of the worst outbreak of avian flu the world has seen so far. The spread of avian flu is not the fault of wild, migratory birds. Low-level pathogenic viruses for avian influenza have circulated for millions of years. What we are dealing with currently is H5N1, a highly pathogenic strain that originated on a goose farm in eastern Asia in 1996. All the science indicates that the spread of and magnitude of what we are seeing is the result of animal farming. And though animal agriculture in general has been proven in countless studies to be environmentally unsustainable at its current scale, intensive farming in particular creates ideal circumstances for diseases to thrive, mutate and spread rapidly.

For reference, over 90% of the 1 billion chickens raised for their meat each year in the UK are intensively farmed. They are raised to grow so large and so quickly that 1 million of these intelligent, sensitive birds die in the UK every week before even being taken to the slaughterhouse. Some people are surprised to learn that Northern Ireland is a particular hotspot for intensive farming of birds. (Consumers should note that even birds and eggs sold under ‘cage-free’ or ‘free range’ labels can be subject to intensive farming.)

And indeed, the rapid spread and mutation of avian flu is exactly what we’re seeing. Migratory birds contract the disease and transport it during their travels, but they are only able to do so easily because we have created the perfect environment for it to thrive nearly anywhere by breeding and killing billions of birds annually–at least 50 billion chickens a year for meat alone, as well as many ducks, geese and turkeys.

How to report Avian flu–and please do report it!

Do not touch any sick or dead birds. If you find any dead waterfowl (swans, ducks, geese), any gulls, seabirds, birds of prey or five or more of any other species in one place please report them to Defra on 03459 335577 or in Northern Ireland to DAERA on 0300 200 7840. You can also report them via DAERA’s online system.

It is extremely important that any sightings are reported so that we can best keep track of the spread of the disease.

Humans can contract certain strains of avian flu, including this one (H5N1), though currently the rate of infection is not high. H5N1 has not mutated to be easily transmissible between humans, but scientists are increasingly concerned about the risk, stating that ‘a new bird flu virus with “high transmissibility” would make Covid-19 appear mild.’ The 1918 Spanish Flu that killed 50 million people was an avian flu, for example. Other strains of avian flu currently circulating on farms include H5N8 and H5N6.

Keep updated with the RSPB’s page about the current state of avian flu and please consider donating to the appeal.