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Avian influenza wreaks havoc on wild seabird colonies at six National Trust sites

Kittiwake in flight above the sea, photographed from above
A kittiwake in flight above the sea | © National Trust Images/Dougie Holden

With the breeding season coming to a close for many bird species, we look back on the devastating effects avian influenza (bird flu) has had on our precious seabirds this year as the deadly disease hit six National Trust seabird colonies, compared to just one in 2022.

What happened last year?

In 2022, we saw the highly contageous avian influenza, also known as bird flu, rip through many species of seabird on the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, and more than 6,000 birds perished.

Thankfully other sites remained largely unaffected by the virus.

The situation in 2023

Thanks to the tireless efforts of our rangers carrying out regular pick-ups of dead birds as well as an early decision to close the islands to visitors, the spread of the disease on the Farne Islands was nearly halved compared to last year.

Unfortunately, it’s a much bleaker picture for other sites, as many other notable seabird colonies were impacted this year. Hardest hit, besides the Farnes, were Long Nanny, also on the Northumberland Coast, and Cemlyn on Anglesey, north Wales.

key facts


dead birds recovered on the Farne Islands, Northumberland


dead birds recovered at Long Nanny, Northumberland


dead birds recovered at Cemlyn, Anglesey, north Wales

Other bird flu-related fatalities were reported on the Pembrokeshire coast in south Wales, where more than 1,000 cases were recorded, while Brownsea Island off the Dorset coast had 650 cases, and 21 dead birds were recovered at Groomsport in Northern Ireland.

The one National Trust site that appears to have escaped the disease relatively unscathed is Blakeney Point on the north Norfolk coast, whose important colony of little terns was reported to be thriving after a successful breeding year.

Two little terns on a pebbly beach
Little tern chicks at Blakeney Point on the Norfolk coast | © National Trust Images/Hanne Siebers

Detailed breakdown of cases at all locations

Arctic Tern, Farne Islands, Northumberland
Arctic tern on the Farne Islands, Northumberland | © National Trust Images/Stephen Morley

What happens next?

There is currently no sure way of protecting seabirds against the spread of the disease – so we are looking to reduce other pressures to give our internationally important seabirds the best fighting chance while building our understanding of impacts on the populations of different species.

For this reason, even though many of the migrating birds have now left, the Farne Islands will remain closed for the remainder of the visitor season. This allows the rangers to deal with the impacts of the disease, including catching up with habitat management work to help ensure the best breeding conditions possible for birds returning next year. Sail around boat tours of the Farne Islands will continue.

It is apparent that this disease is likely to remain shifting from species to species and we must swiftly develop a coordinated approach to monitoring and implementing conservation measures across national governments, statutory agencies, researchers and conservation organisations to stand any chance of protecting our important populations of seabirds.

A quote by Ben McCarthyNational Trust Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology
Puffin on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

Donate to support our precious seabirds

From puffins to kittiwakes and Arctic terns, the places we care for are home to a wide range of internationally important seabird colonies. Give today and support our work defending these important sites against the threat of avian influenza.

Puffin in flight on the Farne Islands, Northumberland

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