Nature News from RSPB Scotland


June 21, 2022 RSPB Scotland
Nature News from RSPB Scotland
Show Notes Transcript

Stephen and Kate are joined by RSPB Scotland's Head of Species Paul Walton to discuss the unfolding bird flu outbreak. They discuss the latest from the seabird colonies most affected, hear from RSPB staff on the ground in Shetland and talk about what we all can do to help.

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Intro  0:22 
This is Nature News from RSPB Scotland

Stephen Magee  0:32 
Hello, and welcome to nature news from RSPB Scotland. I'm Stephen McGee.

Kate Kirkwood  0:36  
And I'm Kate Kirkwood.

Stephen Magee  0:37 
And this is a slightly different edition of the podcast, I think Kate. We are going to be focusing on one story. And it is the story of bird flu, which I mean nobody could really have missed over the last few weeks.

Kate Kirkwood  0:51 
No, it's been well, we've not necessarily seen a whole lot covered in mainstream media. If your LinkedIn to Twitter and social media, you'll see there's been a lot of discussion about it and a lot of people crying out for a bit of help around it and understanding.

Stephen Magee  1:03 
Absolutely. So we're going to try and walk you through what's been happening, what the implications may or may not be, and also crucially, things that you can do to help. We are here at the seaside. We are, we're at South Queensferry we are right underneath the real bridge. So if there's a train, don't worry about it. That's all it is. But yeah, we're gonna try and tell you what you need to know about bird flu.

So as I say, no nature news to start nature news, this time, because we are focusing on this one topic and to help us do that we are joined by Paul Walton, right, who knows everything we need to know,  hopefully, about bird flu.

Paul Walton  2:04 
Nobody knows everything we need to, I'm afraid, Stephen at the moment, but I'll do my best.

Stephen Magee  2:08 
Excellent! I suppose first things first, what is bird flu?

Paul Walton  2:13 
Bird flu circulates in wild bird populations kind of, naturally, and probably has done for millennia. But what we're facing at the moment is a new form of this virus. And it is for birds, much more deadly than the previous versions of it that we've seen. So the low pathogenic avian influenza, you know that there are symptoms in birds, but it doesn't sort of kill very large numbers of birds in recorded history. We now have what's called highly pathogenic avian influenza, circulating in wild bird populations. And for the first time, we are seeing real, what we call population level impacts. That means the whole populations of wild bird species are being impacted and reduced through the deaths of birds from this new form of the virus.

Stephen Magee  3:19 
We have spoken about this before, Kate, but we spoke about it like in the autumn.

Kate Kirkwood  3:23  
Yeah, we spoke about it affecting particular sort of flocks of wildfowl around the geese and kind of in the sort of south of Scotland. Our colleagues at Mersehead were really struggling with it. But we kind of we began to speak about maybe about a month ago as it was starting to be seen more regularly. But it really has been something that's kind of been fairly kind of low level and mainstream kind of understanding of what's going on.

Stephen Magee  3:47 
Yeah, so the difference now, Paul, is having seen it, make it I mean, having you're talking about population level impacts, I mean, certainly in the barnacle geese and the Solway Firth you know, we're looking at what over 30% of the population dying last autumn and we thought that was pretty bad at the time. But what we're noticing and seabirds give us a sense of how serious it is.

Paul Walton  4:10 
Well, that die off of barnacle geese, you know, maybe 10,000 Birds maybe more died on the Solway. These are the the Svalbard breeding barnacle geese, the breeding the Svalbard Islands north of Norway and the whole of that breeding population comes about on the Solway. And this winter a third of them were lost and that is unprecedented in UK history in terms of an impact of avian influenza, bird flu, so that was new, you're right, I mean, that was a major concern. And then last summer it was noticed that a bird called the Great Skua were you know people were flying in box, aka the bonxie Yeah, the bonxie is it's Shetland name but kind of everyone who knows the bird calls on bonxies because it's just such a great word. Yeah bonxies, sick, dying, they were tested by government virologists and positive for high pathogenic avian influenza, positive for bird flu. And that happened just at the end of the breeding season just before they migrated. Okay, so they migrate to spend the winter off the west coast of Africa. And off they went. So we couldn't really assess what the impacts were and I worked with our conservation science department, the RSPB, to try and make sure we were ready when the birds returned this spring, to see what impact that outbreak had had on on the bonxies. Because for that species, the Great Skua, 60% of the world population breeds in the UK, nearly all of those are so 56% of the world population breeds in Scotland. And of those 90% of them are in the northern Isles. So we have real big global significance for that species. So we were kind of waiting for them to come back. And then when they did arrive, what I certainly wasn't expecting is they were sick again. So we saw bump bonxies, again, dying at their nests, and being recorded sick, and they have been absolutely hammered by this disease. I mean, I was hearing the other day 700 Dead adults were found on the Island of Fula in Shetland, which is an important colony. 250 was the last I heard of the count of dead birds on Fair Isle, over 100 on St. Kilda, these are the main breeding sites for that species globally speaking. So it has been absolutely devastated. We don't know exactly how much because, of course, we are really in the middle of the seabird breeding season right now. So the chicks are just about to hatch. But it is clear that we have seen a major impact on the world population of our bonxies.

Stephen Magee  6:53 
I don't know about you, Kate, but I'm almost reluctant in the mornings to look at Twitter, or even my emails. Because it seems every day there's fresh stuff like this.

Kate Kirkwood  7:09  
Yeah. And I think that is it's it's difficult to look at, it really is difficult to look at. But I think we're in a really privileged position where we can understand it better. So not looking away is also a really important part of that. But I completely feel that and to be honest, in my personal life, I am hesitating going out to the coast because I can shield myself from it a little bit. But having seen the conversations you've had with colleagues in Shetland, just kind of how, how heartbreaking it is to see that scale of death in species that we actually have quite personal connections with. I think something that doesn't always get talked about at length is if you if you monitor a certain type of seabird or a colony, you actually build a relationship with it, it has its own character. You everyone has their favourite species that they kind of resonate with. And so if you're starting to see challenges with that species, it can actually be really hard to stomach and you often feel quite powerless with it as well. But yeah, I completely I completely understand anyone who is struggling with it.

Stephen Magee  8:19 
It's tough, isn't it? We should also say for people that although we've seen massive impacts in bonxies, in beaches in the Northern Isles along the north coast now down the east coast of Scotland, we're seeing significant impacts on other seabirds species as well. Gannets, terns, eider ducks, you know, it's how, how wide is this going, now?

Paul Walton  8:47 
Well, I think the most important thing to say is that we are in uncharted territory. We don't know where we're headed with this, which is one of the worries. In terms of other species, yes, gannets, now Scotland has 20% of the world population of Northern gannets. Just on the Firth of Forth here, the biggest colony in the world 150,000 Birds is on the bass rock. The species its scientific name is named after the Bass Rock,  Morus bassanus. So yeah, it's Scotland of global importance and it doesn't get much more globally important than that in my book, and we are seeing really large numbers of deaths of adult birds. So you know, we've had, for example, just under 100 Birds recently found at Troup Head in Aberdeenshire. One of our colleagues was up in Hermaness, the very northern tip of Shetland, which is a big gannet colony and reckoned last week there was about one in 10 of the birds were dead on their nest. And then we as you say, they've been dead birds washing up right down in Northumberland coast as well. So sort of spreading into England now. The thing about this is that with geese, for example, we know that their populations can be quite volatile. So, for example, that Soloway barnacle geese population after the Second World War was right down to 200 Birds or so it was really in trouble because of over hunting here because of disturbance because the Nazis were in Svalbard, very active there undisturbed breeding grounds. That species, thanks to our predecessors in the RSPB received legal protection in the middle of the 20th century. And immediately, it responded, and the population built up to 40,000 Birds is a massive conservation success story really. But with seabirds, they're a bit different. They are very long lived birds, I mean, you're gonna live to 30/40 years old, some birds like fulmars, probably quite a lot more than that. And they have a naturally a very slow reproductive rate. So they only kind of lay a small number of eggs and rear one or two chicks a year, at most. When breeding adults start to die, more than it's normal, because adult mortality is normally quite low from one year to the next, when you elevate that they really struggled to breed fast enough to make up the, Yeah, to fill in, fill in the gaps, and so the population then starts to decline and that's why this is such a big worry for for conservationists and seabird biologists what's going on now. I mean Kate was saying there you feel it personally when I was eight years studying seabirds in Shetland and Orkney with Glasgow University, did my PhD on a bird called the black guillemots. I studied Arctic turns and shags and guillemots and kittiwakes, intensively for years spent 1000s of hours watching these birds and I do feel a personal connection to this. I know a lot of people do, but the thing that really got me was when I got a phone call saying that somebody had found, like dozens of dead sandwich turns in Caithness. And, you know, just as a seabird biologist, I know that that's just not normal. You know, and this this was in sort of end of May, and I have to say, when I got that news, I was really I actually just got a try not to be emotional, try to be professional. My job, obviously. But really, it just just brought it home to me that we're facing something quite new and quite different.

Stephen Magee  12:29 
Yeah, that I mean that emotional impact is a thing now. I spent a bit of time in Shetland, last week, trying to get a sense of what this is like for people on the ground working for RSPB dealing with this crisis trying to work through it. And this is a little bit of what I found when I was there.

I'm at Sumburgh Head RSPB Scotland reserve, right down at the south end of mainland on Shetland and a thankfully, this is one of the areas that so far doesn't seem to have been really obviously affected by the bird flu outbreak. There's puffins here, fulmars, guillemots, razorbills, bonxies hanging about it's pretty amazing. But the reason I'm here in Shetland, unfortunately, is not just to enjoy the seabird colony. I've been here catching up with the staff who are working here finding about finding out about what they're doing to try and deal with the bird flu outbreak. Anyway, I thought I'd let you hear from to the staff who were who are working through this outbreak and try to deal with it. And the two voices you're here are Kevin Kelly, who's the site manager for here. And also, Helen Moncrief, who is kind of runs the Shetland operation for RSPB Scotland and they both been very closely involved in dealing with this. So this is what they think of it.

Kevin Kelly  14:13  
Heartbreaking. It doesn't get easier, like great skuas, and then seeing them in this way, is quite harrowing seeing them dead in areas where you can see where you can see wader activity. You can see phalaropes, you can see divers, you can see the other potential risks. But that doesn't take away from just the birds themselves, the ones that are you know, victims at the minute. Great skuas, Arctic terns recently, and then you see the reports of vast swathes of gannets and other seabirds washing up in areas and littered at the basic cliffs up here at some key breeding sites. Just so heartbreaking. It just doesn't get it doesn't get easier and it feels like it won't do, it feels like it's gonna be a long summer it's very difficult when you care so much about your work and what you do and care about the species that you deal with. And for me it's not a case of okay switch off you know switch off outside of work and think about something different well outside of work I'm a birder you know, that's what I like doing. So there is no switch off it's it's constant

Helen Moncrieff  15:30  
it's just harder that's unfolding in front of your eyes so so this is what's three months on since we had the dunters on the beaches and more species have been found with it. So it's, it feels like but yeah, it's just been a bit of a horror film that's unfolding and it's hard not to catastrophize but what might happen because bonxies, in particular, you see them flying around everywhere. They breed in the hills, they're out at sea and coming into the coast and a part of the secret of their success is that a general feeder. They scavenge and the catcher and fish and they go for other birds, but I'm an optimist, but it is hard not to catastrophize about what is happening and because the virus is spread through the fluids so and seabirds are packed in together, particularly the gannets. It's hard to not think what's going to happen next, and then the RSPB are all around the country and we're hearing from our colleagues a right down in the south and west Orkney here and the St Kilda team they've got a lot going on there with their bonxies is too so. So yeah. Yeah, it's it does feel like a tragedy unfolding but we just got to keep on keeping on and do what we can for the birds. And I really think we have to tell the stories, we ought to them and we ought to future generations to, to capture the story. So we can learn a bit the virus and put a good conservation conservation measures in place to make sure the populations are as robust and resilient as they can be, and protect the seas where they feed and protect their habitats where they breed. We just has to do it.

Stephen Magee  17:09 
So yes, at time of recording, things certainly aren't getting any better. And we're still hoping for a really strong unified government and government agency response to this and pushing for that. So hopefully, through the magic of podcasts time travel, by the time this makes it we to you maybe some of those issues at least will be resolved.

So here we are in the future. And the immediate question when I was up there Paul really was about just the practicalities of dealing with outbreak, dealing with the dead birds understanding what's going on. I know that there's been talks convened by the Scottish Government involving us, the relevant agencies, other wildlife organisations, where are we with that?

Paul Walton  18:15 
I think it's fair to say that this has taken everyone by surprise. There was a period where quite a few of the officials that I was speaking to were sort of saying, Oh, it's very sad, but there's nothing we can do about it. And that isn't RSPB Scotland's view, we believe that there is quite a lot can be done about it. And indeed, it's the view of the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species who set out guidelines for countries to develop national response plans, which involve monitoring, surveillance, some of which is underway, but also things like research into studying the birds that aren't yet ill to see, you know, if they have antibodies so we can target measures and future. Then it's about things like minimising disturbance where there's a localised outbreak where it's possible to keep the surveys to an absolute minimum, perhaps through you know, trying to encourage people not to access foreshores, etc. Perhaps some temporary limitations on hunting activity. And then there's, there's other things that can be done in terms of possibly carcass collection, and where there are a lot of dead birds are, this is a very difficult one because of course...

Stephen Magee  19:26 
I mean, it was particularly different difficult for them in Shetland, because it's an isolated area and what are you gonna do with like, bin bags full of like, some bird flu effectively?

Paul Walton  19:34 
Exactly, and I think the the authorities have found this quite a challenging one logistically as well. But I am encouraged that discussion is now starting, the Scottish Government has initiated the sort of cross sectoral discussions to see how we can all work together and, you know, we really need to see that across the UK countries and some real coordination happening here. So that we in terms of our IT immediate response, we do things like get the right messaging out to people. So people really should not be picking up sick or injured birds at the moment. This is a bird disease, okay? It is very rare that it's ever picked up by people, but it's not unheard of. So, you know, primary consideration must be keeping, keeping people safe. Making sure people understand the need to keep their pets away from from dead and sick birds, this sort of messaging, we need this to come really loud and clear. And that's why the kind of surprisingly low profile of this outbreak, and at the moment is perhaps a bit of a worry. But the initial signs are there that we're seeing some real movement from the authorities. Yeah, yeah,

Yeah because it's worth talking about that, Kate, I mean, there are things, you know, we were talking there about how you can look at your feet and feel helpless about this. There are things we can do, right? Both to protect ourselves and help with birds.

Kate Kirkwood  20:53 
Yeah, absolutely. And I think understanding it better, educating ourselves, like Paul's been saying, and really engaging with that kind of discussion is really important. But as you say, I think the importance of people understanding that, at this busy time of year, when people do want to go to the coast, I mean, it's irresistible on a hot, sunny day to take dogs out for a walk, or the kids out to the beach, but I think being aware that we will be potentially coming into to, if not contact into kind of the vicinity of potentially washed up birds or into areas where there are sick and dying birds.

Stephen Magee  21:25 
And being I think one of the things has been a bit emotionally prepared for that and thinking about because you know, when I think about summer holidays in Scotland with my kids, like going to places like Handa Island or wherever, you know, are often the highlights of it. And now, I suppose you've got to think I have to prepare the ground a bit that things might be different.

Kate Kirkwood  21:42 
Yeah, absolutely. I think one of the slightly more harrowing stories that I heard as a description was of, of guillemots, just falling off their nests into the sea. And I think just witnessing that, as well, as is definitely not something that anyone would be prepared for necessarily, if you're not used to, to that level of kind of, I suppose the outbreak is causing.

Stephen Magee  22:06 
Yeah. And one other thing that as of this week, people can now do, people very generously responded to an appeal we made last autumn in relation to the outbreak in southwest Scotland, there is now a renewed appeal around bird flu to help us, first of all, increase our on the ground response and make sure that we're taking account of all the things we need to do there, but also to do some of the work that, Paul, you've been kind of indicating we need to do to raise the profile of this right, you know, and make sure that our advocacy and that we're out there, you know, making sure that organisations, that governments and the relevant agencies are doing all the right things. Any money we get from this appeal can also can be used to help with that, we will put the link for the appeal in the show notes. But that that is that is something practical that if you're in a position to do so, you can do that. One of the things that has caused some confusion, I think, and that you might be able to help us out with Paul is understanding the human factors that contribute to this outbreak, and particularly the relationship between poultry between farmed birds and wild birds. Right, and there is quite a lot of confusing and contradictory chatter around that out there. Help people understand what the factual basis for this is.

Paul Walton  23:29 
Okay, so this isn't just the disease of wild birds. It is also a disease of poultry and the last assessment that I saw 250 million domestic birds have died in efforts to control the disease. Highly pathogenic bird flu first arose, according to the United Nations assessment in intensive poultry industry in eastern Asia, okay, and it first passed into wild birds in the early 2000s. A quite specific place, I'll place one Lake Qinghai in China where domestic birds are sort of, you know, released onto the lake and mingle with with wild birds. And it the consensus, as I understand it, among virologists is that that was when it first passed into wild birds, has then circulated in wild birds since then, and there's been the occasional outbreaks but nothing like what we've seen this winter. And it's simply a virus doing what viruses do which it then changed when it was in the wild bird population it changed. And I believe it was in sort of East Central Europe that virologists first became aware of this really, really deadly form of the disease in wild birds and it killed  demoiselle cranes in Rajastan in India, it killed 7000 Common cranes in the State of Israel. It killed, you know, a high proportion of world population of Dalmatian pelicans in Greece and then there was that Solway outbreak. Now, we have the range of species, that it's affecting, increasing again into seabirds and it's not just here, it's again, it's gannets across the Atlantic and Canada have been really badly hit as well, and we have a range of species affected over in Canada and the United States, too. So this is becoming a kind of a global issue for wild birds. But it is safe to say that at the moment, Scotland is a bit of a centre of it, which is why we are so concerned and so active on it. One thing I do want to say is that, you know, seabirds in Scotland it's one of our most precious natural treasures are our populations of wild seabirds. We have, as I said earlier, we've got high proportion of the world population, but it's also a spectacle. Now, what I don't want us to give the message is don't visit seabird colonies at all. You just have to be aware of this disease, and just just be conscious of it but there are boat operators here, just next to the pier here, you know, the Maid of the Forth and other boats go from here do tours around these islands and it's still a wonderful thing to do and these guys need need their businesses, not to be sort of people not to react so extremely, as they just say we're not going to go to the coast. But at the same time, we really, really need people to be aware of this issue and we really need people to be, you know, talking to policymakers talking to decision makers, and letting people, letting politicians know that this is something that you take really seriously.

Stephen Magee  26:46 
One of the things we need to talk to policymakers about is that we've touched there on the on the human contribution to the origin of this disease but these really valuable populations of seabirds in Scotland are under enormous pressures because of human activity.

Kate Kirkwood  27:00  
Yeah, exactly, we've talked about kind of the the challenges that the these colonies are under pressure from in terms of sort of sea levels, the temperature, the sea water and access to food and things like that. Then you've got things like the plastic kind of microplastics in the water. So these are all things that people are aware of but there's maybe not necessarily that amount of kind of joining up the dots, we've got colonies and species that are already under significant pressure from these these human caused situations. So I think it's maybe worthwhile kind of people who kind of joining the dots a little bit just to kind of really think these are birds that are under stress populations under pressure, their access to feeding and breeding is limited as it stands already. And then yet another disease that has been spread due to human activity is really kind of putting really significant pressures on these these birds and these species.

Stephen Magee  27:56 
The stat that always sticks in my mind is that since 1986, we have lost almost half of our seabirds in Scotland, right?

Paul Walton  28:05 
That's right. So there's an index of annually monitored seabird breeding seabird species in Scotland that covers 11 different species of seabirds. And that index has declined from 1986 till 2019 by 49%, which is  a huge decline, and that was before the impact of highly pathogenic bird flu. Okay, so it's kind of this this comes on top of it. And it is, as Kate was indicating there, its impacts of climate change, its impact of food shortages, it's an inability of the birds to compete with with human fisheries, industrial fisheries for for sandeels in particular. Increasingly we understand it's about adult seabirds getting entangled in in fishing gear, it is about the human introduction of invasive, non native mammals onto seabird breeding islands where they eat the chicks and eggs and the species can't breed successfully. and so what what we really need is for this terrible outbreak to be seen as a real wake up call about species conservation and species recovery in Scotland, and seabirds in particular, but other species too and what we need to see is - we need to see an end to industrial fishing of sandeels in Scottish waters. We need to see a rolling programme around the Scottish archipelago of island restoration where there's invasive, non native mammals that's removing the mammals and biosecurity and making sure that these mammals don't arrive again in future, to create safe breeding sites for these species. We need to see a future development that's forthcoming, the much needed wind farms that'll help our collective effort to fight climate change needs to be constructed and planned and designed in a way which minimises impacts on birds, but then they also need to proceed in a way that that that some of the funding that can come from that is applied directly to seabird conservation and we need to see the sort of measures taken as a matter of urgency, now we've got the Scottish biodiversity strategy. The consultation document was just launched yesterday. and we need that strategy and the Scottish seabird conservation strategy, which is also in development, to really step up in terms of ambition to step up in terms of political priority and to step up in terms of funding.

Stephen Magee  30:22 
I am acutely aware that this podcast has not been the cheery listen that you might normally expect for us, right? But I'm also not really making an apology for that because this is a big deal and we need to think about it, right. But if I were trying to slightly reframe this stuff as positively as I can, all of those factors, which you have just cited, right, the nature of the fishery, what we do in terms of biosecurity on islands, the development of offshore wind and other renewable sources of energy, these are all things which are in our control as a species, right? These are things that we do and therefore we can do differently. So, hopefully, the potential positive out of this is that we realise the seriousness of this and we do the things that we need to do.

Paul Walton  31:17 
Yeah, absolutely. So for example, on that seabird Island biosecurity, the RSPB is running at the moment, a huge project around all of the countries in the UK that's focused on seabird Island biosecurity. That project is European funded, the funding ends in a couple of years, we've been speaking to governments about developing a true legacy of that project so that the work doesn't end suddenly after four years, and biosecurity stops and we've been getting somewhere with it. But some reluctance, of course, it's difficult financial times, we really need that legacy for our biosecurity for life project to be taken really seriously and we need a government step up and the sums involved are not enormous - that's another important thing to see. I just want to share one thing, I mean, you've got to be an optimist if you're a conservationist, as you well know, Steven, and you know, those reports of guillemots that Kate was talking about down in our wonderful reserve at the Mull of Galloway down there, our staff had been in touch with me saying, oh, look, here are photographs of taken of guillemots on the cliffs, and sure there are dead birds on those ledges, you know, 30 dead guillemots a couple of weeks ago. And I was thinking to myself, this is potentially really, really serious, you don't see that many dead guillemots on ledges normally and they nest absolutely cheek by jowl, so they're really in close proximity, they're completely packed in when they breed guillemots. Those three births has not become 300, right? Yeah, now I'm not a virologist and I, we are in uncharted territory and I cannot tell exactly what's going to happen but it may be that we're looking at a situation where there are certain species like the sandwich tern, like the bonxie, unlike the gannet that are really susceptible, but maybe, hopefully, hopefully, other species might not be quite so hard. And so that is the hope we still have a fabulous spectacle here on the Firth of Forth with our seabirds, and right around our coasts and Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles, the Argyle islands, these are world class places for wildlife and seabirds and we want people to keep going there, just be aware and be sensible.

Stephen Magee  33:34 
And we know from things that have happened before that if we either get out of the way as a species or even potentially help, nature has incredible resilience innit?

Kate Kirkwood  33:47 
Yeah, absolutely, and I think there have been more examples than I can even kind of name but even just the example of the barnacle geese that you talked about earlier in the podcast, human concerted effort to do the thing that needs to be done can have immense impacts whether that's positive or negative. But I think really, it's time for people to stand up and say, you know what, we're not having this anymore. We need to do what we need to do.

Stephen Magee  34:16 
Absolutely. Well, listen, we will keep you up to date, of course, with everything that's happening with bird flu. I'm hoping that the next podcast we come back to bird flu will be part of the mix. But we'll be talking about some other things as well. In the interim, if you're in a position to do so, and it's something you want to do, we will put the link for the appeal into show notes along with the kind of the background information in particular if you want to dig a bit deeper, but Paul, thank you so much for coming out. Thank you, Steven. And a Yeah, goodbye for now. Thank you. Bye

Paul Walton  34:46