Country diary: Avian flu is devastating the seabirds of the Northern Isles

country diary: avian flu is devastating the seabirds of the northern isles
© Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Brian D Anderson/Rex/Shutterstock

Walking the Orkney shoreline, usually such a peaceful and calming activity, has been more disturbing of late. Along the strand, a succession of small bedraggled forms lie prone – victims of the avian flu ripping through the seabird populations of the Northern Isles and up the east coast of Britain.

Crossing over to the Brough of Birsay, the tidal island, via a narrow causeway, I stumble across the first gannet. Its long, streamlined body is immediately recognisable: spectre white, misted with gold at its crown. Its eyes, staring blindly, have that piercing, icy quality of a husky’s, while its beak is the palest powder blue lined in black, as if designed with a felt-tip pen.

It is unusual to be able to admire such a creature at close quarters, but I keep my distance. Best not to touch it. There’s a second bird just a few metres further on, this one sprawled across the strand, wings outstretched. A pitiful sight. It’s the same story all up the coast, affecting many species at once. Last year it was the geese. This year: the gannets, guillemots, great skuas, and more. A catastrophe in our midst, and one with global significance: at this time of year, Scotland plays host to 46% of the world’s northern gannets and 60% of all great skuas.

There is horrifying footage from the famous gannet colonies at Hermaness in Shetland, where more than 1,000 dead birds have been recorded in the waters, and the Bass Rock off East Lothian, – the largest such colony in the world – show scenes of devastation. Birds slide from their rocky perches, hang lodged in crags while their close neighbours continue to feed and fledge their chicks amid the corpses. This annual gathering, where birds feed and fledge their young collectively and in close proximity, is serving as a superspreader event.

Thought to be the worst ever outbreak in the UK, much of the drama is unfolding offshore; the true toll in those remote colonies, where birds crowd tightly together, is not yet fully known. But we can track its progress through the birds washed up on our beaches: should you come across the bodies of suspected avian flu victims, report your findings to Defra on 03459 335577.

• Country Diary is on Twitter at @gdncountrydiary

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