By Adrian Walters
The joy of writing the monthly news updates is that it provides an opportunity to celebrate all things positive relating to our wonderful riverside. However, this month there is no getting away from some very sad and bad news.
As if nature were not already under undue pressure from mankind’s management of the environment, or perhaps because of it, we are now witnessing the unfolding catastrophe of avian flu. We are all aware that this virus has been affecting sea bird colonies in a big way this year with thousands of birds dying at their nesting sites around our coasts. Particularly distressing were the images of dead gannets on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth but there were many other places around the United Kingdom and mainland Europe where breeding sea birds were seriously affected, and conservation efforts put back by many years.
Earlier this month the EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said the latest data for 2021 – 2022 showed this is the largest epidemic of avian flu ever recorded in Europe. More than 47million domesticated birds have been culled since last autumn in outbreaks across 37 countries.
There have also been thousands of outbreaks recorded in wild birds throughout the year. Typically, outbreaks of avian flu decline with warmer weather but they have continued this summer leading to fears that highly pathogenic variants of avian flu are now endemic in wild birds, creating a risk of infection all year.
There are around twelve variations of the bird flu virus and more will inevitably evolve with some possibly becoming even more infectious. The current outbreak is caused by the H5N1 strain and was first recorded locally in August at a poultry farm in Norfolk. Norfolk, Suffolk and north Essex are now included in a Regional Avian Influenza Prevention Zone but that relates to biosecurity on poultry farms and for small poultry keepers. For wild birds, the cat is well and truly out of the bag, as autumn migrant birds carry or pick up the virus on their journeys north and south.
H5N1 is highly pathogenic meaning that it is very infectious which is why we are seeing our birds on the common lands literally die before our very eyes. One day they may look weary and the next they are dead. There is no cure for the wild birds so nothing can be done. In rare cases, infection can transfer to humans so these dying birds must be left well alone as stated on the signs at all the entrance gates to the Sudbury Common Lands. It would also be a very sensible precaution to keep dogs away from carcasses.
In late September and through October, gulls, herons and numerous swans began dying on a daily basis. Of course, it the swan population that is being visibly affected because the birds are large and conspicuous and gather in numbers because they are fed by humans at Brundon Mill and elsewhere. Wherever they congregate they will certainly transfer the disease. Stopping the feeding would have no effect whatsoever because the birds are habituated to gathering. How many small birds are succumbing to the disease is not known as these are, for the most part, unlikely to be seen or recorded.
Although Defra has not responded to the forwarded reports, it must be assumed that the birds have died from avian flu. As a result of the number of bird involved, council operatives are involved in collecting the dead birds from locations identified by the Ranger team. These dead birds are classified as ‘Category 1 Animal By-Product Waste’ and must be disposed of safely and securely.
How long this disastrous affair will continue is anyone’s guess. For those working to improve the environment it is a severe blow and one that is difficult to come to terms with.