In the summer of 2022, more than 6,000 migratory birds that arrived in the English archipelago of the Farne Islands to reproduce were found dead. The cause was the serious epidemic of avian flu, which is extremely lethal for birds and poultry, and which in the last two years has had serious consequences in Europe, both in intensive farming and on wildlife. As a precautionary measure to protect their habitat, the islands were closed to tourists at the time and it was decided to do the same again this year, since the severity of the epidemic is such as to suggest that a similar situation could occur this summer .
The Farne archipelago is a group of about fifteen islands located off the coast of Northumberland, in the north-east of England, between Newcastle and Edinburgh. Since 1925, the islands have been managed by the National Trust, a British foundation created in 1895 with the aim of protecting the historic sites and green spaces of the United Kingdom: they do not have a fixed population, but the rangers live there who take care of their maintenance and every year they were attended by about 45 thousand visitors, above all lovers of “birdwatching”, i.e. bird observation.
In fact, every year, especially between May and July, about 200,000 migratory birds arrive on the Farne Islands to reproduce, favored both by the large amount of food available and by the almost total absence of predators.
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The first effects of bird flu on the Farne Islands were observed in the spring of 2022 and within the year the number of dead birds was the highest ever recorded since population data were collected. The carcasses found and removed in the summer of 2022 on the Farne Islands were more than 6 thousand, but it is believed that the birds that died due to the disease may have been many more, given that various species nest near the coasts and many specimens could be fallen into the sea. According to the European Food Safety Authority and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, the season’s avian outbreak between 2021 and 2022 was the most severe observed in Europe so far.
As explained to the Guardian Harriet Reid, the head of the park rangers of the islands, the fear is that this year’s flu epidemic will have similar consequences to last year’s. For this reason, at the beginning of the year the National Trust decided that it will not be allowed to disembark either on Inner Farne or on Staple Island, two of the most popular islands, although it will continue to be possible to go around them by boat.
Many of the bird species that pass through the island “are rare and above all are already in difficulty due to the consequences of climate change,” said Reid, and one of the ways in which action can be taken to mitigate the effects of the disease on birds it is “to limit the access of people”, and consequently “to limit the nuisance to the animals”. For humans, the risk of infection is generally low.
Among the most affected species on the archipelago were the guillemots, followed by kittiwakes and puffins, seabirds with the typical colored beak also known by the English name puffin: 3,542, 818 and 467 specimens were found dead respectively . The rangers said that previously about 330 pairs of terns had been seen nesting on the islands of the archipelago: in 2022 alone, however, the carcasses of about 300 specimens, both adults and chicks, had been collected.
Now there is concern precisely for birds that nest on cliffs, such as guillemots or terns: their nests are very close to each other and consequently the population density is very high, so the risk of infection is higher, he noted National Trust officer Ben McCarty.
Several seabirds have already been found dead this year, including seagulls, although it has not yet been confirmed that they were killed by bird flu. The objective of the ban on access to the islands, always explains Reid, is to create the best possible nesting habitat, but also to observe the number of migratory birds that return after the serious situation of 2022. Last August some biologists quoted by the BBC they had said it could take years to restore the situation at the Farne.