Bodies on the beach: a disaster in the making
The seaside tourist season is over in Wales, and perhaps it’s just as well, because bodies are washing up on the shore. In fact there have been corpses along the coast all summer, but the number is increasing, and no one seems to know quite what to do.
Until now, in the UK, the world-wide devastating epidemic of wild bird flu has primarily been a news story about domestic birds. Almost all reporting of this ‘highly pathogenic’ strain of H5N1 avian influenza has concerned outbreaks in poultry and other kept birds, with a repeated reassurance that the risk to humans is low.
Few of these news reports include any mention of the impact of this virulent disease on wild birds, and where wild birds are mentioned they are depicted as a threat, as infective agents that domestic flocks must be protected from with enhanced biosecurity measures.
Where there has been reporting on the devastation to wild birds, it has been characterised as a natural disaster, but remote. Over the winter, there was news of ravaged flocks of geese on the Solway Firth. During the summer, avian flu decimated colonies of breeding seabirds such as gannets and arctic terns in Scotland, England, and off Pembrokeshire.
In the late summer it arrived in southwest England, mainly in herring gulls and black backed gulls. Already under pressure from human activities, these seacliff and island colonies seemed now to be facing a new threat – a terrible one, but not of our making.
Only it is of our making. And it’s not separate from disease in poultry. H5N1 originated in domestic geese in China, and incubated and mutated in the intensive poultry industry, from which it transferred to wild birds. It is also spreading in pheasants reared and released by game shoots.
This changing virus is another example, like Covid-19 and swine flu before it, of human activity creating a breeding ground for disease mutation and transmission. But the dangers of industrial poultry production are only starting to be publicly discussed in the UK, and that is in relation to its widespread pollution of rivers. At present, the industry is characterised as needing protection from bird flu, rather than as being its progenitor.
For many people in the UK, the species that have been most severely affected, such as gannets, arctic terns and great skuas, primarily exist as television birds, depicted in glorious detail on a screen. It’s a tragedy that they’re suffering, but it seems as though nothing can be done. Perhaps that’s why the catastrophe hasn’t had much traction as a news story: most of us can’t see the evidence, there’s no one to be angry with, and there are no polarised social media rants and clicks to be generated. There’s just grief and helplessness among those who care about birds, and disinterest among those who don’t.
Close at hand
But this mutated disease is not just wiping out swathes of seabirds or waterfowl anymore: it’s spreading, and is about to come home to us all. There have been confirmed cases in recent weeks in Anglesey, Gwynedd, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. In addition to outbreaks in gannets, and, earlier in the year in swans and geese, it’s been recently detected here in buzzards, crows, pigeons, and, more extensively, in herring gulls. These aren’t remote birds out at sea. They are close at hand.
The bodies are washing up on the shore in increasing numbers all around our coast, and people have posted images and footage on social media of confused and sick birds that should not be on shore at all, including guillemots and gannets that can’t fly. There are reports of numerous dead birds at sea in Cardigan Bay. Last week I found five bodies on one short stretch of beach in Aberaeron: three guillemots, a gannet, and the skeletal remains and feathers of something unidentifiable. There was a kite overhead, and crows nearby, and dogs running around unsupervised.
Soon, if there is no intervention, there’s every likelihood that we’ll be seeing bodies in our gardens – because those corpses, left uncollected on beaches, are being eaten by scavengers, which themselves then contract and transmit the disease. With the autumn migration season under way, and many species beginning to gather in flocks for the winter, the potential for new and widespread infection increases significantly. As ornithologist Graham Appleton tweeted about images of wader flocks: ‘I wish I could look at these amazing images and think “Wow!” Instead, I think “What will happen when birdflu strikes?”’
If our government has a plan to help wild birds it’s not in the public domain. Bird conservation organisations are conducting research and monitoring, but at the moment there is no government mitigation and no guidance, either at the national or Westminster level, except in relation to agriculture and domestic birds.
There is also only very fragmented advice for the public about what to do if you find a dead bird. The UK agency, Defra, is tasked with monitoring the spread of the disease, but Defra is primarily concerned with the impact on agriculture. They only take reports of three or more birds, unless you’re reporting a bird of prey or an owl. They pass that on to the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), who, depending on resources and prior public reporting in the area, might collect samples.
APHA publishes an updated spreadsheet of positive results weekly. But these are only the results of sampling done on reported carcasses. The testing provides a mere hint of possible geographical distribution, and the rate of increase. It does not in any way seek to measure the extent and impact of the epidemic. Still, it does offer a comparative snapshot: by the third week of September in 2021 there had been 38 positive samples reported for all of the UK. By contrast, this year to date there have been 1,124 confirmed samples.
Neither Defra nor APHA is responsible for the collection and disposal of bodies: that responsibility lies with the local authority if the body is found on public land. Yet it is difficult to find out how to report to your local council. I spent a long morning searching for guidance from those coastal local authorities where wild avian flu has been recently confirmed.
Ceredigion, where I live, has issued a public warning through the local press, and has put up some signs, amending its initial advice to contact Defra, with new advice not to touch dead birds but to phone the council for collection and disposal. However there’s no information on their website. There is nothing on Gwynedd Council’s website either, though when I phoned I was transferred to the Maritime Service, which, I was told, is where people should report dead birds found on the shore.
Pembrokeshire’s council, which has been dealing with a major outbreak on Grassholm, does have guidance on its website, and provides a phone number to call for collection. Carmarthenshire’s website directs you to report to Defra and Natural Resources Wales, but Natural Resources Wales has no information (except in relation to domestic birds and poultry).
When I phoned to enquire, I was told that they simply pass reports to Defra. Reporting to Defra is also the government’s advice.
Disaster for wild birds
This strain of avian flu is a disaster for wild birds, but it also has the potential to become a public health disaster if it mutates and there are conditions for it to jump species. It has already been reported in mammals, such as foxes in North America, a dolphin in Florida, and a porpoise in Sweden. That seems a very dangerous possible development here if bodies lie uncollected along Wales’ extensive coastline, and the inadequate monitoring continues: avian flu in dogs, and via garden birds in cats, and then humans.
When that ‘risk to humans’ assessment changes from ‘low’, wild birds will suddenly very much be the news story, and tabloid ranting about control and culling will fall on receptive ears in a Westminster government that is already intent on tearing up what little environmental protections remain.
We can’t control this flu: we have to hope for wild resilience. But with a bit of foresight and planning we could slow its spread, mitigate its impact, and prevent its leap to other species – and thereby also pre-empt potential public fear, and hostility towards wild birds. The covid pandemic showed that we can do things differently in Wales, but if the current patchwork of inconsistent, obscure and incomplete public advice is any indication, bird flu is a disaster for which our government is currently very poorly prepared.
Guidance (at time of publication):
Do not touch or collect dead birds found in public places. Note the location with a grid reference or the What3Words app, and report new corpses to Defra (03459335577) and to your local authority.
Pembrokeshire: 01437764551 (or out of hours 03456015522) or online……
Gwynedd: 01758704066 (Maritime Service)
Jasmine Donahaye’s next book Birdsplaining: A Natural History, is published in January 2023.
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Perhaps the Crown Estates could help with this as they own a large chunk of the area out to sea
Quick off the mark there Rose and a very good point indeed.
The writer mentions a need to “preempt…..hostility towards wild birds”. That is an issue I am unable to recognise. Most people rejoice in their contact with wild birds. Some even go out of their way to feed them (and rats often benefit!). The only recent cases of “hostility” I have heard of are the cases of red kites and other birds being killed by wind turbines which seems to stimulate much shrugging of shoulders among those wedded to the “wind solves everything” ideology.