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Birdwatch Ireland Expresses Alarm at Avian Flu Spread in Seabirds and Calls for Urgent Response Plan from Government

9th July 2022
Rockabill Island off the coast of Skerries in north County Dublin holding up to 80% of Europe’s breeding Roseate Terns
Rockabill Island off the coast of Skerries in north County Dublin holding up to 80% of Europe’s breeding Roseate Terns Credit: Wikipedia

BirdWatch Ireland has said it is “shocked” at the spread of a highly virulent strain of avian flu in seabird colonies in Britain, and says Ireland needs to develop a response plan urgently.

No cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) have been positively identified in seabirds in the Republic of Ireland yet, but cases have been confirmed in several locations in Northern Ireland, it says.

The NGO is calling on the government to convene key stakeholders “urgently” with a view to developing and implementing a response plan to the growing threat of the spread in Ireland.

“We are witnessing the potential decimation of seabird populations on a scale that has not been seen before in our lifetimes. We are as a result gravely concerned for seabird colonies in Ireland,”Birdwatch Ireland says.

“We believe that it is only a matter of time before a wild bird is tested positive by Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine veterinary staff, but casual sightings indicate that the disease is probably present in our wild birds already,” it says.

“HPAI has the potential to spread rapidly in breeding seabird colonies, as seabirds gather in high numbers and in close proximity to lay eggs and rear chicks on Irish cliffs, headlands and islands,”it says.

Birdwatch Ireland stresses the international importance of Irish colonies, with Rockabill Island off the coast of Skerries in north County Dublin holding up to 80% of Europe’s breeding Roseate Terns.

The Kilcoole, County Wicklow Little Tern colony holds 40% of Ireland’s Little Tern population, it says, while Manx Shearwater occurs on just a handful of colonies.

Sites off the south-east such as Great Saltee island hold internationally important breeding seabird populations, including the gannet, which has been impacted particularly severely, it says.

It says that given that 23 of Ireland’s 24 breeding seabirds are already red or amber listed birds of conservation concern, with global threats to the puffin and kittiwake, the government here must act very quickly and take the HPAI threat seriously.

Birdwatch Ireland senior seabird conservation officer Dr Stephen Newton described the situation as “frightening”.

“There are three or four species where virtually the whole of the Irish, or sometimes the whole of the European, population nest at just one or two sites. Our big fear is that these could be wiped out completely,” Dr Newton says.

BirdWatch Ireland says that with the agreement of the National Parks and Wildlife Service it is ceasing research and monitoring activities at seabird colonies, where staff and volunteers would be in very close proximity to wild birds, except in exceptional circumstances.

“ This will help reduce disturbance and minimise the risk of spreading the disease,”it says.

“Our seabirds are the life and soul of the coastline in the summer. The Irish Government has a responsibility to protect them as much as possible from this deadly disease,”it says.

“HPAI originated in intensively manged poultry flocks and then infected wild birds. Putting in place measures which may help to minimise the spread in Ireland is essential to prevent further biodiversity loss, but also to protect poultry flocks which could be re-infected from the disease circulating in the wild bird population,”it says.

It advises anyone who sees a dead or distressed wild bird to report it to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and the Marine at

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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Marine Wildlife Around Ireland One of the greatest memories of any day spent boating around the Irish coast is an encounter with marine wildlife.  It's a thrill for young and old to witness seabirds, seals, dolphins and whales right there in their own habitat. As boaters fortunate enough to have experienced it will testify even spotting a distant dorsal fin can be the highlight of any day afloat.  Was that a porpoise? Was it a whale? No matter how brief the glimpse it's a privilege to share the seas with Irish marine wildlife.

Thanks to the location of our beautiful little island, perched in the North Atlantic Ocean there appears to be no shortage of marine life to observe.

From whales to dolphins, seals, sharks and other ocean animals this page documents the most interesting accounts of marine wildlife around our shores. We're keen to receive your observations, your photos, links and youtube clips.

Boaters have a unique perspective and all those who go afloat, from inshore kayaking to offshore yacht racing that what they encounter can be of real value to specialist organisations such as the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) who compile a list of sightings and strandings. The IWDG knowledge base has increased over the past 21 years thanks in part at least to the observations of sailors, anglers, kayakers and boaters.

Thanks to the IWDG work we now know we share the seas with dozens of species who also call Ireland home. Here's the current list: Atlantic white-sided dolphin, beluga whale, blue whale, bottlenose dolphin, common dolphin, Cuvier's beaked whale, false killer whale, fin whale, Gervais' beaked whale, harbour porpoise, humpback whale, killer whale, minke whale, northern bottlenose whale, northern right whale, pilot whale, pygmy sperm whale, Risso's dolphin, sei whale, Sowerby's beaked whale, sperm whale, striped dolphin, True's beaked whale and white-beaked dolphin.

But as impressive as the species list is the IWDG believe there are still gaps in our knowledge. Next time you are out on the ocean waves keep a sharp look out!

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