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Nature / Mousa boat trip season ends early as nature agency advises landings to stop

The world famous Mousa Broch.
Mousa is known for its Iron-Age broch. Photo: Shetland News

A SHETLAND tour operator says his crucial summer season is prematurely over after access to the world famous Mousa Broch was restricted to combat the spread of avian flu among seabirds.

Darron Smith of Mousa Boat suggested government agency NatureScot is effectively closing down his business while other nature reserves in Shetland do not face the same restrictions.

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The company would have usually have run sailings to the end of September, but the boat was tied up on Friday (29 July) with no more trips to the island planned this season.

It comes after Historic Environment Scotland shut the island’s broch, which is a key part of the attraction for visitors, on advice from NatureScot.

Smith said the company had done its utmost to ensure biosecurity on the small uninhabited island, famous for its 2,000 year old Iron-Age broch and the colony of storm petrels, the UK smallest seabird, nesting in its walls.

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While NatureScot issued a press release on Friday saying public landings on Mousa were advised to stop, Smith said a number of extra, stringent biosecurity measures had been recommended to the tour operator – but this would make trips to the island “unviable”.

He said this included every guest wearing rubber boots, having cleaning stations in place and supervising tours.

“This closure is aimed to protect the storm petrels and that’s great – I’m all for protecting them,” Smith said. “However there is no avian flu recorded in storm petrels in the whole UK colony.

“We have not taken the decision lightly to stop sailing to Mousa. We have been pushed into the corner through biosecurity measures that are unreasonable and are unpractical for us to continue, so that’s why we cannot land on Mousa.”

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There are reports of thousands of seabirds dying from the H5N1 strain of avian flu, with gannets and bonxies among those worst affected, and naturalists have expressed grave concern of the impact on wild bird populations across Scotland. 

On Friday, NatureScot said it assessed that the risk of visitors moving the avian flu virus around the island on their footwear and inside the broch was too great.

Mousa is home to around 11,000 breeding pairs of European storm petrels, known as alamooties in Shetland, representing two per cent of the entire global population of the birds. Several hundred breeding pairs make their home within the walls of Mousa Broch.

NatureScot’s deputy director of nature and climate change Eileen Stuart said: “Restricting visits to Mousa was not an easy decision, but we are increasingly concerned about the terrible effect avian flu is having in Shetland’s seabird colonies.

“Together with the Scottish Government and the Animal and Plant Health Agency, we have looked at biosecurity measures to allow the broch to remain open to the public while the storm petrels are nesting.

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“However, the logistics of getting enough clean water out to the broch and ensuring that visitors can clean and disinfect their footwear adequately has proved too challenging for this season.”

It follows the closure of 23 Scottish islands, including Ramna Stacks and Gruney in Shetland, to visitors earlier in July. Public access to the Noss Nature Reserve was already closed on 1 July.

But Smith said the approach by the UK Government’s DEFRA, NatureScot and the council’s environmental health department was inconsistent, as access to other bird colonies remain unrestricted with hardly a warning sign up to advise visitors of the dangers of spreading the disease.

He added that he could not see an avenue for compensation, but said the company will try to make sure its self-employed guides and coach operator maintain work through shore excursions on the mainland.

However the manger for the RSPB reserves in Shetland, Helen Moncrieff, defended the measures the bird charity had implemented on local reserves.

At Sumburgh, we decided against putting signs up as, unlike Mousa, people are not walking amongst the birds so won’t be at risk of treading viral matter in amongst the colony,” she said.

“Also, there has been no suspected or confirmed cases of AI [avian influenza] in the Sumburgh bird population. That is a miracle that I still hold on to and gives me hope.

“For Mousa, we provided the Mousa Boat with a number of laminates in June to distribute to their passengers as they have a ‘captive audience’ onboard and asked them to explain why folk should stick to the paths and not touch sick or dead birds.

“We provided Mousa Boat a recording to play on the ferry which covers avian flu amongst other things. We have also removed carcasses from Mousa.”

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Avian flu signs have been put up at some beaches. Photo: Shetland News

She added: “The impact avian influenza is having on tour operators is incredibly tough, particularly after the last few years. We are grateful for the sacrifices that the Mousa Boat company, and other tour operators elsewhere in Scotland, are making to help limit the spread.”

Moncrieff added that at reserves at Spiggie and in Fetlar the RSPB had put up their own signs and has now added also signage provided by NatureScot. 

Guidance for wildlife managers including signage can be found on the agency’s website at: https://www.nature.scot/doc/highly-pathogenic-avian-influenza-bird-flu-guidance-site-managers

Meanwhile NatureScot said it considered the existing biosecurity measures to be adequate for visitors walking round the island on the footpaths, but not for entering the broch on Mousa.

Visiting cruises, recreational boats and sea kayakers are requested not to land on Mousa until mid-October as there are currently no biosecurity arrangements in place on the beach by the jetty and there are storm petrels and Arctic terns nesting at the other potential landing sites.

NatureScot will review this risk assessment in March 2023 in the light of research into how avian influenza virus spreads on different surfaces and information about the predominant strain of the virus circulating in wild bird populations.

This information will be used with the aim of devising effective biosecurity measures to keep Mousa Broch open to visitors while protecting the storm petrels from avian flu.

Meanwhile, the council’s environmental health team confirmed that it has been collecting dead birds from locations where the carcasses are deemed to be a potential public health issue.

Team leader David Robertson said the advice to the public is that people should not touch or pick up sick or dead birds.

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He said there were some signs up at some locations and more permanent signs had been ordered. 

The countryside was not closed to visitors, he said, but people enjoying the outdoors were reminded to act responsibly and do everything they could to prevent the spread of the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu.

However, the risk to human continues to be deemed as low.

Anyone coming across a single dead wild waterfowl (swans, geese or ducks), a single dead bird of prey, or five or more dead wild birds of any other species at the same place at the same time should report them to the Defra’s telephone helpline 03459 33 55 77 (select option seven).

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