Tragically, this year our seabirds are facing an unprecedented and widespread outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI). The disease originated in poultry in Asia, passed into wild birds, and has led to multiple serious outbreaks, including the loss of 1/3 of the Solway wintering barnacle goose population last winter. A wide range of seabird species have been confirmed as infected and we are seeing large die offs of several species at their breeding colonies.
So far, the worst impacted seabird species include great skua, gannet and increasingly terns. Thousands of birds have died over recent weeks across Scottish seabird islands. On St Kilda, the National Trust for Scotland have recorded a 64% decline in great skua territories compared to the last census in 2019! Similar declines have been recorded across the great skua’s range. We are in uncharted territory and how the disease will progress is unknown. Unfortunately, it is possible that this situation will get worse before it gets better.
HPAI can spread through direct bird to bird transmission, through carcasses, bird droppings and feathers and can persist in the environment such as standing water for many days. It can also survive on clothing and shoes – anyone who visits a seabird colony and gets close to the birds at this time must take precautions to avoid becoming a transmission pathway and inadvertently spreading the virus to new colonies.
As Biosecurity for LIFE begins our final full summer season of fieldwork we are taking the situation very seriously. We will be keeping any potential disturbance to the birds at an absolute minimum. At a time when seabird colonies are under unprecedented pressure it is more important than ever to make sure that invasive mammalian predators do not reach our seabird islands and surveillance checks are completed.
To continue our work safely, this summer we are implementing the following five steps to protect seabirds and staff from the threat of HPAI:
- 1) Disinfecting all equipment before setting off, and again when back on the boat after island visits
- 2) Donning PPE (cotton coveralls, gloves, and FFP3 masks) for the duration of our time on island
- 3) Avoiding dense seabird colony areas to prevent stress to infected birds
- 4) Planning our routes so we start with areas occupied by species that are currently less affected and end where possible with great skua/gannet areas (this is to minimise the opportunity to spread virus between species on island)
- 5) Where possible only visiting one island per day and using fully clean clothing and footwear on each trip – where this is not possible changing all outer clothing layers between islands, bagging dirty clothing for removal to mainland
In addition to our routine biosecurity work we will also be collecting data on the influenza situation on each island we visit. As we are accessing rarely visited islands in the coming weeks this will help build a better picture of the full scale of the current HPAI outbreak.
All our work is being regularly reviewed to ensure we adapt to the rapidly changing situation and can take the necessary steps over the summer.