In recent years we have all learned much about viruses, the way they spread and the impacts they can have. It is no longer the realm of just specialist scientists, everyone has access to more information to form an opinion.
Summer 2021 saw many North Sea seabirds perish. Autumn saw large numbers of auks loitering close inshore on the Scottish coast at a time when they would be expected to way out to sea. Many succumbed, raising awareness within the general public that there was some form of die-off event. While the cause remained unclear, the results were stark, and a large number of birds were found as tideline corpses. The question was where these deaths at a sufficient level to show up as a population impact?
Moving forward twelve months and news started to filter of various seabird species again succumbing. It has quickly established that avian influenza, or bird flu (H5N1), was behind this event and certain species were being especially impacted. Harrowing scenes emerged from Shetland of dead Great skuas in 2022 and soon after Gannets were struck at what appears to be all the northern and east coast colonies with Bempton in Yorkshire being impacted in 2023. Meanwhile tern colonies around the southern North Sea were devastated including the important roseate tern colony at Coquet Island. The majority of seabird colonies have been affected raising concerns about population impacts. Impacts are hugely negative for sure, but can a species rebound? Once it is on a negative trajectory how is it possible for a species to recover?
All the numbers are uncertain, but data is being collected so we can begin to assess the consequences. HiDef have seen many dead birds at sea in our footage – a simply terrible sight. But where does this take us? We can begin to make population models. Our modellers need data to calculate scenarios. We are working with industry and conservation bodies to log the consequences and look to the future.
Through 2023 there has been glimmers of hope in these dark times in some areas. Gannets are showing signs of immunity in the form of breeding normally while exhibiting blackened irises, instead of the normal sky blue, which has been associated with HPAI infection. Sandwich tern colonies have reformed in new areas and are breeding again. Great skua chicks are now fledging from the remnant colonies in the Scottish Islands. Are these signs of hope? There are scores of examples of species being hit hard by singular events in the past and making a fight back. One group to look to at a time of despair are seals. They were globally diminished by phocine distemper in 1988 and it returned in 2002, but populations have largely rebounded through to today. Survival of the fittest? We can only hope.