Farne Islands to remain closed for the breeding season, as first positive cases of bird flu are confirmed this year
- 24 April 2023
The National Trust has today (25 April) announced that a handful of cases of Avian Flu have sadly been confirmed on the Farne Islands, off the coast of Northumberland, as more seabirds return for this year’s breeding season.
As a result, visitors won’t be able to land on the Farne Islands until at least the end of August when the breeding season comes to an end. During this time, National Trust rangers will continue to monitor the islands which are home to rare seabirds including Atlantic puffins, Arctic terns and guillemots.
Avian Influenza is still prevalent in seabird populations, despite government restrictions on housing poultry being lifted last week. The conservation charity believes it is prudent to continue to take a precautionary approach due to the three confirmed cases and the as yet unknown risk to seabirds for this year’s breeding season.
However, sail around tours of the islands offered by local boat operators will continue to run offering a chance to see the wildlife who live and breed on the islands including grey seals.
Last year, while the islands were off limits due to the outbreak, rangers contributed to national monitoring and research into the impacts of bird flu on the breeding populations and removed over 6,000 carcasses of birds which had succumbed to the virus. Guillemots and kittiwakes were impacted the most, with 3,542 and 818 dead birds collected respectively, thought to have perished due to the disease. These numbers are likely to be just the tip of the iceberg as many dead birds in the densely packed cliff colonies will have fallen into the sea.
The decision has been taken at a crucial time for the thousands of seabirds returning to the islands to begin the main breeding season. Species such as puffins and guillemots are already back on the islands, and Arctic terns will return very soon to nest.
Harriet Reid, Lead Ranger for the Farne Islands said: “Avian Influenza was rife on the islands last year and it was very distressing to see these precious seabirds impacted by the disease.
“Sadly, with confirmed cases, there is a strong likelihood that we will see thousands of birds affected by the virus again this year. Many of the species we care for are rare or struggling already due to climate change. By restricting access to the islands for visitors and limiting disturbance - which can cause distress to sick birds and potentially increase the transmission of bird flu - we hope to give the birds the best chance of survival."
The Farne Islands is a National Nature Reserve and home to approximately 200,000 seabirds. The National Trust has cared for the Farne Islands for just under 100 years, and there are no records of anything so potentially damaging to the already endangered seabird colonies.
Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology at the National Trust said: “The on-going impact of Avian Influenza on our wild birds is unprecedented. As threatened seabirds return to their breeding sites they become more susceptible to infection due to the high densities in these spectacular colonies.
“We are working with partners to investigate measures to mitigate the impacts as well as better understand the long-term impacts of this pernicious disease. We are doing everything possible to mitigate the impact on the Farne Islands and our other seabird sites we manage.”
National Trust rangers will continue to manage vegetation and improve nesting habitat on the islands to ensure the birds have the best opportunity to breed successfully. They will also monitor the various bird species to understand how many have returned, the numbers of breeding pairs and how many chicks fledge.
While visitors are unable to land the Islands, local boat companies continue to offer a range of sail around tours for visitors to experience the magical nature and marine life around the Farne Islands.
Billy Shiel Farne Island Boats trips is a family business which has been operating trips to the Farne Islands and Holy Island since 1918. The company offer a range of tours and cruises, including Puffin Seabird cruises, Grey Seal cruises, Holy Island trips, Sunset Cruises and Rhib Rides.
Rachel Shiel said: “Our boat trips continue to sail around the Farne Islands to view the nesting seabirds and the grey seals at close quarters. These trips provide a fantastic vantage of the fabulous Farne Islands without disturbing the important work being undertaken by the National Trust to monitor and protect the wildlife.”
Serenity Farne Island Tour owners Andrew and Toby Douglas run a fleet of purpose- built catamarans based in Seahouses Harbour.
Andrew said: “Avian Influenza continues to represent an incredibly high risk to bird populations. Serenity Farne Islands Tours are fully supportive of the National Trust’s actions as the Farne Islands breeding season begins in earnest.
“We will continue to offer a variety of tours, including our two-hour Puffin Seabird Cruises aboard our latest double decker catamaran. Grey Seal cruises and trips to historical Holy Island will also continue throughout the Summer. Our fleet accommodate visitors who wish to see the spectacular wildlife of the Farne Islands from the perfect vantage point.
“Whilst unable to land, our knowledgeable guides will still be able to provide full commentary and address all questions keen visitors to the Islands have. Sunset Cruises will be starting again mid-May.”
All tour details are available on www.farneislandstours.co.uk.