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FROSTY'S RAMBLINGS Must we say goodbye to the bonxie?

Avian flu is having a devastating effect on many of Britain’s seabird colonies on Scottish islands, the coastal cliffs of Scotland and the north of England — and now the great skua, or bonxie, is under threat, reports PETER FROST

AVIAN FLU is a virus that causes disease in all kinds of birds, from commercial poultry such as chickens, geese and ducks as well as pigeons and wild birds. 

There are different strains of the virus and most of them do not infect humans.

Domestic poultry are vulnerable and outbreaks can quickly develop in flocks. Now, most worryingly, huge flocks of seabirds arriving to breed on northerly British islands and coasts are being affected by the disease.

The puffin is one popular species that is suffering large numbers of fatalities but many other seabird species are being cut down by the avian flu virus.

At this time of year there is a huge industry of boat trips to see the spectacular flocks of gannets, puffins and many other seabird species inhabiting our cliffs and beaches, but this summer many of these bird-watching trips are not allowing landings on the islands and headlands as happened in past years.

The boats are sailing close to the sometimes huge and overcrowded nursery cliffs, allowing good viewing, but not the ability to approach the nesting birds at close quarters.

This is to avoid the passing on avian flu, which is highly contagious.

Even very remote islands like the St Kilda archipelago have been affected. Conservationists and bird protection charities are warning that this threatens to push some wild bird species to the brink of extinction. 

One of the most threatened species is the great skua, also known as the bonxie — a name that means “dumpty,” first given to this visiting species by the people of Shetland.

Bonxies are known as the “pirates of the sea” because of their aggressive attacks on other birds to steal their food — most of the fish they eat is stolen from the beaks of other seabirds. 

Sadly, many wildlife rangers have found hundreds of dead bonxies so far this breeding season and these deaths have put severe strain on a globally vulnerable species.

There are about 16,000 bonxies in the world with no less than a third of them — nearly 10,000 birds — in Britain. 

Avian flu was first confirmed last summer on St Kilda, a small group of islands and rocky sea stacks more than 40 miles west of the Western Isles. 

This archipelago is an internationally important seabird breeding ground and home to almost a million birds, including, as well as bonxies, gannets, shearwaters and rare Leach’s storm petrels. It also has Britain’s largest colony of Atlantic puffins.

Great skuas migrate to St Kilda and other parts of Britain and Ireland from their wintering grounds off Spain and Africa.

Rangers on St Kilda recorded about 60 dead bonxies last year, with tests confirming the presence of avian flu.

New casualties started to mount up from the end of April this year.

“It is heartbreaking to witness,” National Trust for Scotland seabird and marine ranger Craig Nisbet told me. He said counting dead birds had now become an increasing part of his job as a conservationist.

Seabirds are the reason human life on these islands was possible for centuries and one of the reasons why St Kilda was given dual Unesco world heritage status in 2005.

Earlier this year a bird flu outbreak was also confirmed among the world’s largest colony of northern gannets on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth.

RSPB Scotland said losses of bonxies were “extremely concerning.” A spokeswoman said the species had been badly affected by avian flu last year.

“The infection continues this breeding season, with reports of hundreds of dead or dying birds in Shetland, Orkney, the Western Isles and elsewhere,” she said.

The Scottish government confirmed that the winter of 2021 saw the largest outbreak of avian flu in Britain to date.

A spokesman said: “This has affected commercial farm poultry flocks as well as the wild bird population, with significant reports of sick or dying seabirds all around the Scottish coast.

“The Scottish government is taking the situation very seriously and we are working with partner organisations to monitor and respond to the situation.

“We have this week published updated advice for local authorities, landowners, wildlife rescue centres and members of the public regarding the reporting, collection and disposal of wild birds.”

Poultry farms are doing all they can to avoid getting avian flu. A single sick bird can cause an entire flock — sometimes more than 1,000 birds — to be culled and their corpses burnt.

Then the entire farms must be deep cleaned and disinfected before a new batch of hatchlings can be introduced. The cost can be astronomical. Makes you feel really sorry for Colonel Sanders and his ilk, doesn’t it?

Well maybe — actually I feel a lot sorrier for the puffins and their mates the bonxies. If we are facing another year or two of avian flu within the bonxie population then their very existence is threatened.

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