The effect on the Farne Islands
This strain of bird flu originated in east Asia and infections were seen in domestic birds in the UK over the winter of 2021/22 before spreading across the country to infect wild birds.
Last year the disease ripped through many species of seabirds on the Farne Islands, when over 6,000 birds perished due to the disease.
This year the number of dead birds collected across the islands is just over half that number at 3,647. We think that in part this is due to regular pick-ups of dead birds by the ranger team in efforts to stop the spread of the disease.
Cliff-nesting birds were the most heavily impacted by the bird flu outbreak in 2022, with the heaviest losses being seen in the guillemot population. This year it has been the kittiwakes and large gulls i.e., Herring and Lesser black backed gulls, which have seen the biggest losses. 1062 kittiwakes and almost 1000 large gulls have been collected, followed by 478 Arctic terns who migrate here from Antarctica. The rangers also picked up 471 puffins.
We don’t know for sure why this is the case, but it seems that the disease is ripping through different species over time, possibly as immunity builds in previously impacted species.
Sadly, these numbers are thought to be just the tip of the iceberg as many dead birds will have fallen into the sea.
Some of collected birds were ringed, which revealed poignant individual stories. One of the casualties included an eight-year-old Arctic tern which would have flown from the Farne Islands to Antarctica and back eight times during its lifetime, covering 144,000 miles.
Also discovered was a 16-year-old Kittiwake that was ringed on the islands back in 2006.
The potential impact of the disease
The National Trust has cared for this National Nature Reserve for just under 100 years, and there are no records of anything potentially so damaging to the already endangered seabird colonies.
While the islands have been closed for visitor landings in 2022 and 2023, the ranger team have been contributing to national monitoring and research into the impacts of bird ‘flu on the breeding populations on the islands, which included a modified puffin census (results are coming soon).
The impact of the disease on the colonies that we care for could be devastating because many species have low reproduction rates, which means the loss of adult birds makes it hard for populations to recover.
Many of these species are rare or struggling already due to climate change. We are actively participating in international research efforts to understand the long-term impacts of this disease and are doing everything we can to mitigate the impact on the Farne Islands.
Ongoing conservation work
While access to the islands is restricted to visitors, the ranger team will be working hard managing vegetation. This is to improve nesting habitat to ensure that the birds have the best opportunity to breed successfully in 2024. They will also continue to monitor the resident bird populations.
Sail around tours still available
We understand how many people love to visit the islands, but we must do everything we can to protect and to try to help these much-loved seabirds by limiting the spread of the disease.
Visitors are still able to take 'sail around' tours of the islands and can book tickets directly with one of the boat companies that operate from Seahouses harbour. Trips include sunset cruises, seal tours, bird watching trips and for those who are a little more adventurous there are diving trips too.
Find out more and book your 'sail around' tour