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ARIANE BURGESS: Avian flu tragedy highlights fragility of our ecosystems

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Holyrood Notebook by Ariane Burgess

There is currently only one confrimed outbreak in Scotland but keepers nationwide have been told to stay vigilant.
There is currently only one confrimed outbreak in Scotland but keepers nationwide have been told to stay vigilant.

Increasingly we are being provided opportunities to understand that we are part of an interconnected and interdependent natural world upon whose ability to thrive we are dependent.

But the natural world shouldn’t just be seen as a resource for humans. We must work on changing our relationship with nature and recognise its value regardless of what it can do for us. Only then will we be able to tackle the nature and climate emergencies.

One emergency ebbing in and out of the national news is the avian influenza crisis spurred into existence by human choices. In June, I raised concerns about avian influenza with the cabinet secretary for rural affairs and islands, Mairi Gougeon. At that time, the suffering of the migratory seabirds we are fortunate to have come to our shores was headline news, and now it has returned.

At that time, the news was of many dead birds washed up on shores, the potential collapse of the great skua colony in Shetland, and the volume of alarm increased when news broke that the virus had reached the gannet colony on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth estuary.

This bird flu has been around since the early 2000s. What often gets reported is that wild birds have avian flu; therefore, we must shut our hens in, so they don’t get it from the wild birds. What gets left out of the brief news bulletins is an important fact that this bird flu didn’t start in wild birds. It spread from intensive poultry factories to wild birds.

So once again, it’s the human drive to push nature beyond its limits that bring about imbalance in the ecosystem.

Now it’s become clear that in a matter of weeks, three-quarters of the seabird population has been lost. The two species that are most affected are the great skua, with more than a thousand birds lost in Shetland, and gannets who, like skuas, nest beak to beak, making it easy for the virus to spread. Once a colony is infected, there is little we can do.

It’s hard not to want to do something when you come across a sick or dead bird. I heard that out of that need to help, people were bringing birds to the SSPCA, but they are not able to accept them due to the virus spreading to the other animals they are helping.

While there is little indication that the virus can transmit to humans, it’s better to leave the birds in place to minimise the spread of the virus and inform your local authority or DEFRA on 03459 33 55 77.

Having had our human pandemic, which continues to mutate into different forms, this is something we can relate to. We have also learned that when a virus strikes, it’s essential to act quickly to stop the spread. Some crucial days passed while public bodies worked out who should take the lead, but now NatureScot is heading up a team of experts and they are working with recommendations from the UN Convention of Migratory Species. With this heart-breaking situation I am grateful for the experts at NatureScot and in environmental organisations like RSPB who are dedicating effort to slow the spread down.

As we embrace the need to tackle our climate emergency through better care and management of nature, we must recognise that while restoring ecosystems like peatland, we must also, at times, put effort into species recovery. For decades in nature conservation, the focus was on species recovery. Now we’ve swung the other way to emphasise the ecosystem approach. What’s needed is both.

Green MSP Ariane Burgess in Forres...Picture: Daniel Forsyth..
Green MSP Ariane Burgess in Forres...Picture: Daniel Forsyth..
  • Ariane Burgess is a Highlands and Islands MSP with the Scottish Green Party.

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