Martin Williams

‘The scale is hard to grasp’: avian flu wreaks devastation on seabirds

//“Instead of the smell of guano, it’s the smell of death,” says Gwen Potter, a National Trust countryside manager working on the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland. “It’s completely horrendous.”

This annual congregation of life has turned into a super-spreader event, as a highly pathogenic avian influenza, H5N1 – also known as bird flu – sweeps through populations of breeding birds, causing devastating losses. More than 300 outbreaks have been reported in UK seabird colonies, and dozens of coastal sites have closed to the public.

Early observations suggest that about 50% of birds infected with the virus die from it, but Prof Diana Bell, a conservation biologist at the University of East Anglia, who studied the H5N1 strain back in 2007, says the figure is more like 100%. “Anything that gets infected is not going to survive, unless the H5N1 has attenuated in its virulence during that time, but I don’t think so,” she says.

Bell says she has never heard of an asymptomatic bird with the virus and therefore doesn’t think wild birds would be able to spread it over long distances. She believes the international poultry trade is the main driver of the virus and says stopping imports of chicks and birds for the trade would be an important step in reducing the risk of future outbreaks. “Originally, it was poultry to wild birds; it was not wild birds which were spreading it. It was frustrating to see wild birds being blamed … We’ve got to get out of our heads that the wild birds are the bad guys here,” she says.//