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Suspected avian flu outbreak – carnage on Dunnet beach as over 100 dead seabirds counted


By David G Scott

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A walk at Dunnet beach to clear environmental waste this week took on a more sinister aspect as over 100 dead seabirds were counted along its length.

Dorcas Sinclair, founder of Caithness Beach Cleans, contacted the paper and voiced her concerns over the number of bird carcases she and her husband Allan discovered along a stretch from the Castletown end along to the pavilion.

A dead gannet found by Allan and Dorcas Sinclair on Dunnet beach this week. Pictures: Dorcas Sinclair
A dead gannet found by Allan and Dorcas Sinclair on Dunnet beach this week. Pictures: Dorcas Sinclair

"I took photos of 32 birds but I am sure there were more, it's a big beach and every time I went up nearer the dunes to see one I always found more than one," said Mrs Sinclair.

The couple counted 41 dead gannets, 34 auks and 20 gulls – 95 dead birds in total plus bundles of wings/carcasses that they were unable to identify. "These were just the ones we saw, I am sure there will have been more."

Mrs Sinclair suspected avian flu as the culprit and said she found it strange that despite having to keep her hens indoors for five months, due to government restrictions, there were over 100 dead and probably diseased birds "on a beach like Dunnet which is full of families and people with dogs who can all catch bird flu from the dead birds".

A razorbill lies decomposing on Dunnet beach. Dorcas Sinclair believes these dead birds could pose a significant health hazard.
A razorbill lies decomposing on Dunnet beach. Dorcas Sinclair believes these dead birds could pose a significant health hazard.

Mrs Sinclair added: "There are no signs warning people to keep their dogs and children away from dead birds and although I have phoned and reported this to Defra no one has got back to me and no birds have been removed. There are quite a few gannets on Thurso beach as well – we also saw a lot on Thurso East."

She contacted Thurso and Northwest Caithness councillor Karl Rosie to inform him of the matter and he called the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to report the findings.

Cllr Rosie said: "I have requested specific advice on what steps will be taken and what measures the public should take and await a callback.

"I appreciate the concerns being voiced about bird flu, my understanding is that some forms of bird flu can pass to humans but this is very rare. It usually requires very close contact between humans and infected birds and until we have clarity we should urge caution."

Another gannet carcass lying on Dunnet beach that is believed to be a victim of avian flu.
Another gannet carcass lying on Dunnet beach that is believed to be a victim of avian flu.

The John O'Groat Journal contacted the Scottish Government's rural affairs department which confirmed that this past winter saw the "largest outbreak of avian flu in the UK to date". The outbreak has affected the wild bird population as well as commercial flocks, it added.

A government spokesperson told the paper: “While maintaining high levels of biosecurity among domestic flocks helps protect against disease, addressing the disease among wild birds poses significant challenges. Avian influenza is a disease that affects the wild bird population globally.

Over 100 dead seabirds were counted along Dunnet beach this week. It is believed they are likely to be casualties of an avian flu epidemic. Picture: DGS
Over 100 dead seabirds were counted along Dunnet beach this week. It is believed they are likely to be casualties of an avian flu epidemic. Picture: DGS

“The Scottish Government is taking the situation very seriously and is working hard with partner organisations to progress measures to respond to the reports of increased mortality among wild bird populations and help them become more resilient.”

It is not known at present if the dead birds will be removed from the beaches but the rural affairs department issued these guidelines:

"Do not touch or pick up any dead or sick birds that you find. In Great Britain, if you find a single dead wild waterfowl (swans, geese or ducks), a single dead bird of prey, or five or more dead wild birds of any other species (including gulls) at the same place at the same time, you should report them to the GB-wide telephone helpline run by Defra: 03459 33 55 77.

"Avian influenza is in no way connected to the Covid-19 pandemic, which is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and is not carried in poultry or captive birds."

For advice and regular updates on the latest situation, visit the Scottish Government avian flu web pages at: www.gov.uk/guidance/avian-influenza-bird-flu


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