Only six wild birds confirmed to have flu in NI say authorities despite growing reports of much larger problem

The authorities are maintaining that only six wild birds have tested positive for avian flu in Northern Ireland, despite growing reports from members of the public of creatures falling sick.

Tuesday, 7th December 2021, 10:41 am
The Waterworks, north Belfast
The Waterworks, north Belfast

The Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs had announced the half-dozen confirmed cases on Sunday, but there have been numerous accounts about more dead or dying birds being spotted.

Politicians in north Belfast in particular are demanding answers about an outbreak in the Waterworks, a large open park in a dense residential part of the city.

One man who photographed stricken birds in the park yesterday told the News Letter of the dismaying behaviour he encountered, with one young swan spinning around as it succumbed to the illness.

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Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon (an SDLP MLA for Belfast North) said last night: “The ongoing situation in the Waterworks with the avian flu outbreak and the impact it is having on the swans is very concerning.”

She called for “an urgent update” from animal health officials and the local council, dubbing the situation “distressing and dangerous”.

Meanwhile, the Ulster Poultry Federation has cancelled an upcoming egg exhibition on December 18 in Ballymena due to the spread of the illness.

TIMELINE OF FLU SPREAD:

This is a breakdown of what is known so far about the spread of bird flu in Ulster.

DAERA acknowledged late last month that two birds in the Waterworks had fallen sick.

This was followed by the setting up of a “control zone” and a cull of 27,000 ducks in Aughnacloy, Co Tyrone, following a suspected case on December 2.

The following day brought a cull of 30 birds in Broughshane, near Ballymena, after a suspected case arose there.

Then on Sunday, DAERA said that avian flu (strain number H5N1) had been confirmed in Monlough Lake near Carryduff, to the south east of Belfast, and in the Harbour Estate in the docks area of north Belfast, as well as the Waterworks – with a total of six birds across all three locations affected.

But the following accounts suggest the true number of infections is likely much higher.

Belfast man Gary Harrison told the News Letter: “I was out walking this afternoon and observed a young swan come towards me and then repeatedly collide with the embankment.

“I watched it for a few moments, then it started moving quickly in a spinning motion, completely unnatural.

“Its head was also in a twisted downward position and it looked very distressed.

“I walked on a few metres and then came across the other swan (pictured) which was on the embankment.

“I’m not sure how it arrived there, as there was a man dressed in a white forensic-style suit pushing a trolley with white sacks at the upper pond, so he may have removed it from the water.

“However the swan was still alive, barely, and was attempting to lift its head.

“It was clearly in the last moments of its life.

“Both ponds are quite occupied with cygnets and swans, and I would be surprised if there are not many more already infected.”

This behaviour echoed a video recording circulated by wildlife enthusiast Debbie ‘Doolittle’ Nelson at the weekend.

She had posted a video of a swan spinning around and around on the spot in the Waterworks, adding: “As feared, the avian flu is spreading through the resident birds at quite a rate...

“There was also reports of sick geese in Newtownabbey and another near Dundonald.

“If you see any birds showing worrying signs, birds circling uncontrollably in the water, floppy heads, staggering, appearing ‘drunk/stoned’ ... please do not touch these birds.

“This strain is potentially transferable to humans. We have enough to deal with without adding to it.”

AUTHORITIES STATE POSITION:

A DAERA spokesman said this morning: “DAERA is aware that there have been reports of dead and sick wild birds in the Belfast area.

“To date in this current outbreak, Avian Influenza H5N1 has been confirmed in six wild birds in Northern Ireland.

“These birds were retrieved from Belfast Waterworks, the Harbour Estate in Belfast and at Monlough Lake near Carryduff.

“DAERA collects dead birds on occasion, for Avian Influenza surveillance purposes to help us understand how the disease is distributed geographically...

“Unfortunately, native wild birds that come into contact with infected migratory birds, are at a high risk of catching the disease.

“The Public Health Agency has issued advice that the public should not touch dead or sick birds.

“You can report dead wild waterfowl (swans, geese or ducks) or other dead wild birds, such as gulls or birds of prey, to the DAERA helpline Tel: 0300 200 7840 during office hours.

“Outside office hours, please follow the instructions provided on the Helpline message.”

It added that “sick birds are the responsibility of the landowner [which in the case of the Waterworks is Belfast City Council] and members of the public should contact whoever owns the land the birds are found on”.

The Public Health Agency has advised that human infections with avian influenza are rare.

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