RSPB NI calls for urgent action following confirmation of bird flu in wild birds at Belfast’s Window on Wildlife reserve

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RSPB NI is asking the Northern Ireland Environment Agency to put in place a Wild Bird Response Plan as soon as possible, to minimise the impact of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza on wild bird populations, which are already facing multiple pressures such as habitat loss and the impact of climate change.

It follows a confirmed outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza at RSPB Belfast’s Window on Wildlife reserve in Belfast Harbour.

RSPB NI is concerned about the impacts on all species affected by HPAI but mostly seabirds, many of which are of high conservation concern due to declines. Seabirds nest in colonies and are long-lived but produce small numbers of young each year, so HPAI can spread quickly, and it can take a long time for colonies devastated by HPAI to be restored.

Anne-Marie McDevitt, Head of Species for RSPB NI, commented: “Highly Pathogenic Avian Flu, also known as bird flu, is a horrible disease. It causes breathing problems, tremors, diarrhoea and ultimately death in the affected species, and is really distressing to see. As this recent outbreak is happening in the middle of the nesting season, it is killing both adults and chicks. Wildlife is already under a huge amount of pressure from habitat destruction, climate change and things like overfishing, and now we have diseases like Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, originating from intensive poultry farming in Asia, adding even more pressure.”

Effects of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza at RSPB Belfast's WoW. Picture: RSPB ImagesEffects of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza at RSPB Belfast's WoW. Picture: RSPB Images
Effects of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza at RSPB Belfast's WoW. Picture: RSPB Images

RSPB NI is calling upon NIEA to invite key organisations, including the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, the Public Health Agency and other Environmental Non-Governmental Organisations (eNGOs) to develop a Wild Bird Response Plan.

Anne-Marie continued: “As well as a Wild Bird Response Plan, we need government to invest over the long-term. Out of 240 countries in the world, Northern Ireland is 12th from the bottom in terms of how much of our nature is left. We need a dedicated Seabird Conservation Strategy and robust climate, marine and agriculture policies that will help deliver for nature and climate, to restore our wildlife, and ensure that it is more resilient to threats such as HPAI.”

HPAI is a virus that occurs naturally in wild and domestic birds, but in 1996 a more lethal highly pathogenic strain evolved in domestic geese in East Asia. Since then, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza strains have been circulating the globe, with devastating effects on both poultry and wild birds.

Normally a disease of the winter months, HPAI has become more common throughout the year and is now impacting birds in the nesting season, killing both adults and young.

Last summer saw wide-scale outbreaks in wild birds in Great Britain, in some cases causing drastic impacts on whole colonies of seabirds and their young, with terns, gannets and great skuas being those most affected.

Black-headed gulls have been the species most affected this summer in Great Britain and, just last week, RSPB NI had their first outbreak in black-headed gulls at their Belfast Window on Wildlife reserve.

As a precautionary measure, the reserve has been closed until further notice.

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