Bird flu is back

Ankskylt_Järlaladen_i_NackaWho would want to be Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?  Foot and Mouth, Bird Flu, badgers moving the goalposts, Ash dieback, floods and now more Bird Flu.

The latest outbreak of bird flu in East Yorkshire is of a different strain from those of a few years ago (probably H5N8 rather than H5N1 although test results are awaited).  There are recent cases in the Netherlands and Germany which are of this strain.

I’ve heard on the radio that the most likely means that bird flu got here was through migratory birds.  That is quite possible although I noticed that the Defra statement doesn’t say anything like that so I ‘phoned the Defra Press Office to find out their view.  I was told that they are still investigating every possibility, which doesn’t sound very much like ‘it’s the migratory birds who brought it here’ to me.

Here is the statement made by Liz Truss in the House of Commons yesterday and the questions from Maria Eagle on the subject. David Davis regards his constituency of Haltemprice and Howden in East Yorkshire as being ‘subject to bird migration’ which is an interesting way of looking at it.

I ‘phoned the RSPB too, and their spokesperson told me a couple of interesting things.  First, that the Defra system set up years ago, and which worked well back in the old days, hasn’t worked so well this time. Defra vets told the world about the outbreak, and vets always blame wildlife for every disease (they must be taught this at vet school), long before the expert group on wild birds (involving I think RSPB, BTO, WWT and others). The RSPB first heard about the outbreak from the media and I guess that applied to other experts on wild birds. This isn’t very clever of Defra – they need all the expert help they can get, they’ve always had that help from wildlife NGOs, and that help has prevented them from making complete fools of themselves in the past.  Doesn’t Ian Botham live somewhere not a million miles away – Defra will be consulting him no doubt.

The other thing that the RSPB told me was that the general view of the experts on wild birds was that it seemed unlikely, but not by any means impossible, that wild birds were responsible. You may have seen on the TV that this facility is a duck breeding farm with lots of sheds full of ducks. How does a wild bird force its way into such an establishment? Just flying over isn’t going to transmit the disease. There are no signs, yet, of die-offs of wild birds locally either.

I would just point out that the outbreak at the Bernard Matthews plant in Suffolk in 2007 was blamed on migratory birds for many days before the truth came out that the site had been receiving lorry loads of tons of partly processed turkey meat every week from Hungary (where there had been outbreaks of bird flu).  See Fighting for Birds, pages 234-243, for that story.

No doubt, Defra is looking at what eggs and/or live birds have been imported into this site over the last couple of weeks, their country of origin and any possible links to other sites with outbreaks of disease.

Bird flu is back – and we’ll have to see how many of the lessons of the past have truly been learned by government.



Note: one paragraph has been deleted from this blog post because first, I got it a bit wrong, and then I got it a bit wrong again. So the simplest thing is just to take it out!  Apologies!

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16 Replies to “Bird flu is back”

  1. What has it got to do with Defra? Expect an announcement from Vivienne Westwood. Or Bob Geldorf. Or Bono. Or Russell Brand. Any time soon …

  2. Mark – your comments about vet schools teaching all their students that diseases all come from wildlife are wrong and unhelpful, at best. Come and visit us in Cambridge if you want to know the truth.

    1. James Wood – well you vets must get it from somewhere. I have never known an outbreak of any disease that affects livestock, where the vets haven’t piled in to blame wildlife first of all. I’m talking about bovine TB and bird flu and (to a much lesser extent) in the spread of foot and mouth disease too. The level of ecological understanding amongst vets is pretty low (as is the level of veterinary understanding amongst ecologists) but that’s why experts need to work together and pool their knowledge.

      When something looks a bit difficult to explain, wildlife is invoked.

      Thank you for your comment.

    2. I think there’s an issue with some vets specialising in livestock tending to be blinkered in favour of their farming constituency. Take the response of the vetenerary profession to the current badger cull. The government chief vet is always lined up to support the current badger cull even though they must, surely, realise that the cull as currently practiced falls way short of what the science demonstrates would be needed to have a (small) effect on TB transmission. The low intensity cull we’ve seen is actually likely to make the situation worse. Only a far more intensive cull would deliver any marginal benefit – and would be too costly and infeasible. Yet vets ignore this and are wheeled out by DEFRA ministers to defend government policy. Why do vets do this willingly? To appease their farmer customers?

  3. Disagree about vets.Consider that over 40 years had close working relationship with ten vets and not once did I hear them blame anything on wildlife and I think that with that number it gives a fair indication of how vets think.

  4. Our (Merseyside Ringing Group’s) instructive and enjoyable collaboration with Liverpool University Veterinary School showed that there usually was a much lower prevalence of salmonella, campylobacter and E. coli amongst wild birds and small mammals caught on farms than in the farm animals themselves. Of course that could be in part because small wild creatures succumb more quickly to infection than large livestock. But certainly at least one of the country’s veterinary schools doesn’t teach students that transmission of disease only occurs in one direction.

  5. Mark

    This review paper in Ibis is a bit dated now (2007), but concluded that there was certainly something of a media rush to judge the role of migratory birds in the original spread of H5N1…

    Here is the abstract:

    “Wild birds, particularly waterfowl, are a key element of the viral ecology of avian influenza. Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus, subtype H5N1, was first detected in poultry in November 1996 in southeast China, where it originated. The virus subsequently dispersed throughout most of Asia, and also to Africa and Europe. Despite compelling evidence that the virus has been dispersed widely via human activities that include farming, and marketing of poultry, migratory birds have been widely considered to be the primary source of its global dispersal. Here we present a critical examination of the arguments both for and against the role of migratory birds in the global dispersal of HPAI H5N1. We conclude that, whilst wild birds undoubtedly contribute to the local spread of the virus in the wild, human commercial activities, particularly those associated with poultry, are the major factors that have determined its global dispersal.”

  6. The vets I’ve met are smart enough not to jump to conclusions, and smart enough not to talk to scientifically ignorant journalists who do. As for Defra………

  7. Agree that it seemed unlikely that a load of ducks in a big shed could have become infected with a virus from wild birds – and then I asked, which wild birds? Can’t answer that.
    This whole global trading system has always worried me – we seem to think it is ok to transport life animals, dead animals, dead fish, and any number of variations of bits of all of these here, there and everywhere and more than once. My common sense tells me that this is just asking for trouble – one gap in the chain, one mishap, one unscrupulous trader and the system falls apart with potentially nightmare results. We already have these nightmares – ash die back, horse meat, etcetcetc. Personally I just do not want to eat untraceable food – whole or in bits. It also encourages natural habitat destruction as poorer countries try to cash in on the rich western food market. Its all a completely no win situation.
    The reason why wildlife gets the blame [at least initially] is because it always looks like the easy way out. We know from so many cases that nothing could be further from the truth – it just takes everybody’s eyes off the ball and in the meantime the real cause makes a huge leap forward. Then Defra and others are firefighting and innocent wildlife gets killed and caring farmers and vets are left looking like idiots.

    1. When corners are cut to increase profits, why let a little thing like biosecurity get in the way?

      Yes I know the vast majority of agri-industry is near perfect but all it needs is one muppet & capitalism sadly is full of those?

      Defra, sitting ducks …. fattened & all trussed up?

  8. Am I the only one to feel a bit uneasy about the “There is clearly a possibility that the source is wild birds—a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve is nearby.” bit? It’s almost as though someone thinks birds are, or should be, somehow confined to RSPB reserves – as if they were zoos rather than protected natural areas.

    Maybe there’s a need for a discussion about what kinds of meat are eaten in the UK, rather than a polarised vegetarian/meat-eater one that isn’t going anywhere useful? On the one hand there’s no (or very limited) UK market for meat from adult sheep which means they’re exported under fairly welfare-poor conditions and on the other there’s a market for poultry that means they’re reared under conditions that aren’t great either for their welfare or for the environment.

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