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Nature / Concern for wild bird populations as more bonxies and gannets are sent for bird flu testing

Shetland holds about 30 per cent of the world's bonxie population. Photo: Shetland News

CONCERNS are growing that Shetland’s famous wild bird populations could be hit hard by an outbreak of avian flu this summer as more dead animals are sent south for testing.

Corpses of five great skuas (bonxies) and three gannets, collected from different sites across Shetland, will be on the boat tonight (Tuesday) on their way to the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) laboratory in Weybridge, Surrey.

Last week, the Scottish Government confirmed to Shetland News that four eider ducks collected on 20 April had tested positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1.

More samples of dead birds, from Fair Isle, are likely to be sent for analysis next week.

Meanwhile, results from dead bonxies collected from Noness and other sites in the southend of Shetland, are expected to be available next week.

The risk from avian flu to humans is considered to be low, but people are advised not to touch or handle any dead or sick birds.

Dr Glen Tyler, a marine ornithology adviser with government agency NatureScot, said reports of dead birds are coming in from most parts of Shetland.

Mainly affected are migratory species such as bonxies and gannets, but also dunters (eider ducks) who spend the winter in large flocks in some of Shetland more sheltered voes.

Distressing footage of dead and suffering bonxies filmed in the South Mainland and Fair Isle were posted on social media earlier this month.

Dr Tyler said these latest cases have not been confirmed as avian flu yet but all the “symptoms look similar”.

It comes as the Scottish Government has somewhat eased restrictions on poultry owners who had been required to keep their animals indoors during the winter.

Dr Tyler said he was not in a position to pre-empt what future government advice on keeping poultry would be but added that it was “unlikely” gannets and bonxies would mix with domestic birds.

However, he voiced concern for the impact a large outbreak of avian flu could have particularly on bonxies, a rare species, although that might not be the impression when living in Shetland.

He said if avian flu is confirmed in bonxies then it is likely to have an impact on populations as 60 per cent of all great skuas are in Scotland, and half of that are in Shetland.

Avian flu is a notifiable animal disease. Further info on how to report it can be found here.