Country Matters Nov 22: Watch the Birdie

No birds.

We’re going through the worst bird ‘flu infection that has ever affected Britain: (HPAI – highly pathogenic avian influenza).  It began with seabirds, and wildfowl migrating from abroad, then spread throughout domestic poultry.  DEFRA (The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) have ordered a lockdown for the whole UK, which means chickens, geese, ducks and turkeys have to stay ‘confined’. If a single bird is infected, the whole flock must be slaughtered, the corpses disposed of, and the site thoroughly cleaned to prevent further transmission of the disease. It seems familiar – a life-changing virus and a ritual of precautions.

What can’t be done is control of wild birds. HPAI has been reported recently in wild birds all over Britain.  Locally the disease has been seen around both Stroud and Swindon, and between Lechlade and Faringdon.  The birds involved have included wild Canada geese, swans, and predators such as buzzards, owls, and several species of hawks.  In Swindon, where some dead birds fell, dead foxes have also been found, which may mean the virus can spread beyond birds. In Cirencester we have ducks, a pair of swans and a wild goose on the abbey lake, shared with many small seagulls and a visiting heron.

When the first ground frosts began, we filled up our birdseed feeder and fatball holder.  Normally, every year, it would be necessary to top them up every morning.  This year we haven’t needed to.  We had a busy rookery close to the house, but this year we’re noticing an unfamiliar silence. The wood pigeons are conspicuous by the rare visits they pay to the garden.  We’d have expected to see blackbirds, sparrows, chaffinches, long tailed tits, robins, a nuthatch and wrens.  Woodpeckers haven’t been attacking the trees. This year we have seen only a few bluetits.

We wonder if it’s been the drought – but we have a pond (which we were able to maintain using stored rainwater) which fewer birds have used for bathing and drinking than ever before. It’s not merely around the house that we sense an ominous lack of normal wildlife; it seems birdspotting is now a losing game of trying to spot any birds at all.  Insect life hasn’t exactly flourished – I’d never imagined I’d miss wasps and flies, but the swotter has hardly been exercised at all this summer.  Then there are the rabbits.  Or to be more accurate, there aren’t the rabbits. It can’t be that the ground is too hard – besides, their warrens have been long-established round here.  Perhaps the buzzards and red kites have been taking more rabbits because there haven’t been enough birds?

Maybe it’s more than just bird flu. So many hedgerow trees have been felled, there may be a shortage of nesting sites. Maybe the timing of flooding has affected crop availability when birds most needed staple foods.  Or maybe they’re being frightened away by the noise of flights from Brize Norton and Fairford.  What ‘dawn chorus’ can compete with the U2 and B52s?  Can they hear each other’s songs over the roars of C17s, A330s and A400Ms?

DEFRA are now issuing guidance to the public asking them to report findings of dead wild birds to their helpline: 03459 22 55 77 – a single bird of prey should be reported, three or more gulls or wild waterfowl, or five or more birds of any species.  The birds should not be touched, and dogs and cats should be kept away from them.  At the moment, there’s no suggestion the virus is likely to spread to humans, but the chief veterinary officer has pointed out; viruses mutate, so we need to keep an eye on the health of birds, for our own sake.

DEFRA are warning that dead birds should not be handled without appropriate protective equipment, and that dogs and cats should be kept away. They’ve also issued details of how to report and dispose of dead wild birds.  They want reports of a single bird of prey or owl, three gulls or wild waterfowl, or five or more birds of any type.  The DEFRA helpline number is 03459 33 55 77 

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