Gulls are bird flu super-spreaders linking farms to wild populations

What is Bird Flu?

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Gulls have become a new and dangerous vector for avian influenza — providing links between poultry farms and isolated bird populations in the wild. This is the warning of virologist Professor Ian Brown of the Animal and Plant Health Agency, who says that the H5N1 bird flu strain has mutated to be more easily carried by the seabirds. It is the “ubiquitous” nature of gulls which makes them a particular risk in this sense — they are present across the UK and can visit the disease upon even the most remote seabird colonies.

According to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, there have been 174 confirmed cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 since October 1 last year.

Of these, 147 cases were in England, 21 in Scotland, 5 in Wales and a single cases recorded in Northern Ireland. The current outbreak — which started in the October of 2021 — has devastated Britain’s wild seabird populations.

Meanwhile, the virus has forced the culling of some 48 million farmed birds across the UK and Europe since December 2021.

As of November, Defra has mandated that poultry farmers in England keep their birds indoors in order to help slow the spread of the virus. A similar policy was enacted in Wales in November and Scotland in December.

Prof. Brown told the i: “There are some hosts in the wild birds, that we’ve learned — things like gulls.

“Gulls are ubiquitous, they’re found around freshwater areas, they’re found near poultry farms, but they also get out to remote sea islands where sea birds nest.

“Prior to this current H5N1, gulls have always been known to be susceptible to flus, but they do seem to be potentially a more regular feature in terms of this virus than they have been in the past.

“That obviously opens up other opportunities for spread. Not only does it increase the opportunity around poultry farms, another major population… you’re also got a population [in gulls] that’s quite mobile and moves out and then takes the virus into seabird colonies, which are a bit like poultry houses, because the virus transmits very far.”

With most seabirds having not yet entered their breeding season this year, conservation experts are still waiting to determine the full impact of bird flu on wild populations.

However, the damage to some species is already evident. In Scotland, last year saw the death of more than 2,200 Great Skuas — an alarming 7 percent of the total global population.

Last month, the National Trust announced that it would not be reopening the Farne Islands to visitors this year because of the impact of avian flu.

The islands, which are a major site for seabird colonies, saw the collection of a horrific 6,000 dead birds last year.

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The RSPB’s senior policy officer on avian influenza, Claire Smith, told the i that it is important to remember that wild birds are victims of the disease, and not just its vectors.

She elaborated: “This includes gulls, some of which — herring gulls, for example — are red-listed species and have suffered significant losses in areas of Scotland this winter.”

The Red List — curated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature — details all those species under the threat of extinction.

Ms Smith added: “There are likely to be multiple routes of transmission between wild birds, which will include bird movements — but [the virus] is originally a human-generated issue, originating in high-intensity poultry and duck farms in Asia.”

Furthermore, she noted, the UK is a signatory of UN conventions which prohibit the culling of wild birds or other anti-virus actions which might damage natural ecosystems.

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