Scotland’s populations of wild birds will continue to be affected by avian flu for years to come as there is no “silver bullet” to mitigate the effects of the devastating disease. 

A report into the ongoing outbreak of the Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) found that there are few short-term options to mitigate its spread and that only long-term conservation measures will help. 

The virus has caused tens of thousands of deaths among seabirds on coastlines around the country, including wiping out a third of the migrating population of Svalbard barnacle geese in the Solway Firth.  

By the end of winter 2021, estimates suggest that 13,200 bird had been killed by the virus. 

This year, it has been the Greenland barnacle geese population that winter on Islay that have been most affected by the virus, with 1,190 deaths recorded and local population counts suggesting actual losses of at least 5,000 birds. 

Other species that have suffered notable mortalities over the winter are pink-footed geese, herring gulls and mute swans. 

The Herald:

A Herring Gull 

The study, by a sub-group of NatureScot’s Scientific Advisory Committee, analysed the unprecedented avian flu outbreak among wild birds since 2021, providing advice to support the work of Scotland's Avian Flu Task Force 

It soberingly concluded that little can be done to halt the impact of the disease except for conservation measures for birds which are particularly susceptible and further research, including enhanced disease surveillance and demographic monitoring. 

It also found that restricting human activity across sites, such as tourist groups, had been unlikely to significantly reduce the impact of an outbreak on wild birds. 

A number of colonies and nesting sites were shut to the public during the past months, with a significant impact on local economies.  

The report found there was “little justification” for disruption and economic loss caused through suspension of tourism and recreational activities.   

READ MORE: Scotland prepares for seabird return amid bird flu fears

The report also found it was "critical” that monitoring and research continue, as this would offer the best chance to help species recover once an outbreak has passed.

It called for the development and deployment large-scale Scottish pathogen testing, as “world-class” facilities exist within the country to carry this out. However, these are not currently being used to support bird flu research.  

The report says: “HPAI in wild birds will possibly become an even more pressing issue over the coming few years.   

“This places Scotland's response to the epidemic in a global spotlight, and generates an internationally important research and policy formulating opportunity.   

“Careful consideration is needed now as to how these opportunities can be connected with policy development in relation to the conservation and management of already vulnerable and declining species populations” 

The Herald: Barnacle goose

A Barnacle Goose 

Alastair MacGugan, a NatureScot Wildlife Manager, said: “Although there’s no silver bullet to solve this complicated dilemma, this report will be a great help as the Avian Influenza Task Force plan action to reduce the effect of avian flu on Scotland’s important populations of wild birds.  

“This is an upmost priority for our partners and ourselves, as the geographic scale, range of species of wild birds affected, and severity of impacts may threaten the very survival of some species. 

“We have already stepped up our collaborative monitoring work in Scotland, and will continue to build on the recommendations in this vital report to make sure seabirds in Scotland have the best chance possible to rebound from the effects of this disease.” 

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Professor Dan Haydon, Chair of the sub-group, and population ecologist at the University of Glasgow, added: “This is an important and timely piece of work to help protect Scotland’s vital seabird populations.  

“We were pleased to be able to collaborate with a range of experts and advise on the route we need to take to better understand this avian flu outbreak and help manage seabirds into the future.”