On the 11th April 2023, NatureScot published a significant report on avian influenza (AI) in wild birds in Scotland. The study was completed by a subgroup of NatureScot’s Scientific Advisory Committee and analyses the unprecedented avian influenza outbreak among wild birds since 2021, providing advice to support the work of Scotland’s Avian Flu Task Force.
Ultimately one of the key findings of the report was that avian influenza will likely continue to impact wild birds into the 2023 nesting season, and beyond. The disease is a serious concern for the survival of certain species, including Svalbard barnacle geese, where one third of the population has died due to avian influenza, with it being incredibly challenging to control or reduce the disease once it is present in the wild bird population.
Findings from the report suggest that there needs to be a focus on demographic monitoring, continued disease surveillance and research to advise the long-term management of wild birds in case of an avian influenza outbreak or other situations occurring.
Some key findings of the report included:
- The epidemiological situation
- Lacking serological data to show if influenza has formerly circulated widely at undetected levels in wild bird populations in the United Kingdom.
- Uncertainty of what has led to the change in epidemiology. Speculations include changes to the virus and changes to migratory patterns of birds.
- Avian influenza continued to be a problem over winter 2022 and will continue in the following ones, as well as into the nesting season of 2023 and many years after.
- Right now, avian influenza is not thought to be well adapted to mammals, but there is some evidence on mammal to mammal transmission in seals, sea lions and mink. There have been positive mammal cases in foxes, otters and seals in the UK, and whilst there has been a small number of human cases, there are no documented cases of human-to-human transmission.
- The available evidence indicates that the virus was transmitted by wild birds within various locations in the UK and also among different species within the same site.
- Ecological impacts
- Species affected the most include mute swans, barnacle geese and large gulls.
- The ecology of most seabirds results in a long population recovery period.
- Due to its nature as a generalist virus, influenza can be transmitted by numerous species. Therefore, less common species that coexist in mixed species communities, may not necessarily be at a lower risk compared to more prevalent species.
- Robust predictions cannot be made regarding the wild bird populations that will be affected as there are no straightforward patterns to follow.
- Short-term management options
- Vaccinating wild birds is not possible, other than in very special cases.
- Where a virus is present on site, human visitation can be considered as a negligible additional contribution to the present infection.
- Unless a significant proportion of transmissions occur due to carcasses, it is improbable that the advantages of removing them would make a substantial difference in limiting transmission.
- Many interventions are unlikely to reduce the overall infection rate of highly-pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI).
- At sites where avian influenza is not present, biosecurity is absolutely essential.
- Effective communication with the public.
- Long-term management options
- Long-term demographic monitoring and related studies such as diet, behaviour and movements are crucial.
- The highest priority should be continued epidemiological surveillance of avian influenza. This includes noting mortality rates and estimates of disease incidence.
- For the next couple of years, modelling is not likely to be helpful for short-term management options. Modelling contributes to the long-term understanding of avian influenza in wild birds.
- Priorities moving forward
- It is essential that research and monitoring continues to investigate interactions between avian influenza and causes of population changes such as human disturbance and wind farm effects.
- Approved protocols for field work need to be a top priority.
- Avian influenza in wild birds will possibly become an urgent issue in the next few years.
- Enhanced funding for research and mitigation measures could, and should be undertaken within Scotland, and at the national and international levels.
For the full report, click here.
With the likelihood of avian influenza impacting the bird population for years to come, farmers must implement strict biosecurity measures to protect the future of their farm.
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