Warning for Lybster Harbour visitors as bird flu casualties mount – 'Don't go near dead birds,' says retired Thurso vet
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The short stretch of pebble beach next to Lybster Harbour should be approached with caution due to the amount of apparent bird flu casualties on it.
This is the advice from retired Thurso vet Sinclair Manson who told the Caithness Courier about the severity of the problem in the county and further afield.
"There's a notice at Thurso beach as well telling people to stay away from the carcases of birds," said Mr Manson.
"People should stay well clear from them. It's probably bird flu that's killing a lot of these birds as it's rife at the moment. A lot of these epidemics run their course and a percentage will die...perhaps 30, 40 or even 50 per cent maybe but they will recover from it, there's no doubt about that."
Mr Manson said the avian flu epidemic is "devastating at the moment" and the public will undoubtedly feel concerned when walking beaches and coming across so many dead birds. "They should keep well away from them and keep their dogs away too. When we deal with them [dead birds] we wear PPE to make sure we don't pick it [bird flu] up ourselves."
He said that the main risks of avian flu transmission to humans comes from people who have had close contact with domestic birds. "Like in Southeast Asia where people have chickens living in their houses," he added.
Close contact between birds, with the breeding season underway, is causing the virus to spread even more, he says. "There's nothing we can really do about it. Gulls, gannets and auks are in close confines as they're congregating to breed and that's why there's so many of those. Birds which generally nest by themselves are much less at risk."
Commenting about bird flu epidemics in the past Mr Manson said that the strains were different 20 or 30 years ago but the current strain is "particularly virulent" and has probably come in through migratory birds. "Migratory geese and wildfowl will probably be carrying it. There were over 80 dead geese found at Scrabster recently and then scavenging birds come in to feed on them so it just perpetuates [the virus]."
During the recent visit by the Courier to Lybster harbour there was no warning notice sited by the beach mentioning the epidemic and members of the public were seen exercising dogs close to the carcases. One man was also observed taking notes of the various casualties on the pebble beach. Retired Dounreay scientist Robin Sellers is well-known within the birding community and counted, among various others, a gannet, a great black backed gull, a kittiwake, a herring gull and four guillemots – one of which was a newly fledged chick.
"I don't think I've ever seen so many in such a short space," said Mr Sellers. "I live in Cumbria and we had a 'wreck of seabirds' in 2014 but this is a higher density of birds. We shouldn't really be on the beach as avian influenza is apparently easily spread."
Mr Sellers had undertaken a survey of herring gulls further north along the Caithness coast at Sarclet earlier in the day but did not notice any major drop in numbers.
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.
Numerous seabird carcases have been reported on beaches throughout the county, with Dunnet being particularly affected, and several recently deceased gannets found on Reiss beach at the weekend.
Wick and East Caithness councillor Willie Mackay said: “Avian influenza is a notifiable animal disease and must be reported to Defra if suspect poultry and captive birds show signs.
"It is very worrying the amount of wild birds found recently on our beaches and caution should prevail if finding visibly sick or dead birds. As far as I am aware there are no poultry entries allowed for this year's Latheron Show and County Show owing to the recent spread of this worrying bird flu.”
Councillor Andrew Jarvie from the same ward said: "This is a very sad sight to see and is a timely reminder that even up here we need to be aware how far and quickly this virus can travel. One of the biggest outbreaks occurred in Orkney just last month.
"I can only hope the spread can be halted as soon as possible to stop the needless deaths of so much wildlife. Dead birds can still transmit the virus to other birds, particularly birds of prey. So if you see a dead bird, it's essential you report it to Defra by its helpline on 03459 335 577 to help halt the spread."
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.
“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.”
A Highland Council spokesperson said: “Follow @ScotGovRural for the latest Avian Influenza update from the Scottish Government which states: If you find three 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) in the same place at the same time, you should report them to Defra’s national GB telephone helpline on 03459 33 55 77.”