The avian flu tragedy highlights the fragility of our ecosystems

Holyrood notebook by Ariane Burgess

There is currently only one confirmed outbreak in Scotland, but Guardians across the country have been urged to remain vigilant.

Increasingly, we have the opportunity to understand that we are part of an interconnected and interdependent natural world on which we depend for the ability to thrive.

But the natural world should not be viewed solely as a resource for humans. We must work to change our relationship with nature and recognize its value regardless of what it can do for us. Only then can we deal with natural and climatic emergencies.

The bird flu crisis caused by human choice is an emergency that is flowing back into the national news and coming out of it. In June, I raised my concerns about bird flu with the Cabinet Secretary for Rural and Islands Affairs, Mairi Gougeon. Back then, the suffering of the migratory seabirds we were blessed with on our shores was in the headlines, and now it’s back.

At the time, news was of many dead birds washing up on shore, of the potential collapse of Shetland’s large skua colony, and the volume of alarm increased as news broke that the virus had reached the Northern Gannet colony on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth Estuary.

This bird flu has existed since the early 2000s. What is often reported is that wild birds have bird flu; therefore, we must lock up our hens, so that they do not catch it from the wild birds. What is left out of the brief news bulletins is an important fact that this bird flu did not start in wild birds. It has spread from intensive poultry factories to wild birds.

So, again, it is the human will to push nature beyond its limits that leads to an imbalance in the ecosystem.

Now it has become clear that within weeks three quarters of the seabird population has disappeared. The two most affected species are the great skua, with over a thousand birds lost in Shetland, and gannets which, like skuas, nest beak to beak, facilitating the spread of the virus. Once a colony is infected there is not much we can do.

It’s hard not to want to do something when you come across a sick or dead bird. I have heard that due to this need for help people bring birds to the SSPCA but they are unable to accept them due to the spread of the virus to other animals they help.

Although there is little indication that the virus can be transmitted to humans, it is best to leave birds behind to minimize the spread of the virus and inform your local authority or DEFRA on 03459 33 55 77.

Having had our human pandemic, which continues to mutate in different forms, this is something we can relate to. We have also learned that when a virus strikes, it is essential to act quickly to stop the spread. A few crucial days have passed during which public bodies have determined who should take the lead, but now NatureScot is leading a team of experts and they are working with the recommendations of the United Nations Convention on Migratory Species. With this heartbreaking situation, I am grateful to the experts at NatureScot and environmental organizations like the RSPB who are devoting efforts to slow the spread.

As we recognize the need to address our climate emergency through better care and stewardship of nature, we must recognize that while restoring ecosystems like peatlands, we must also, at times, make efforts to species recovery. For decades in nature conservation, the focus has been on species recovery. Now we’ve flipped the other way to emphasize the ecosystem approach. What is needed is both.

Green MSP Ariane Burgess at Forres...Photo: Daniel Forsyth..
Green MSP Ariane Burgess at Forres…Photo: Daniel Forsyth..
  • Ariane Burgess is MSP for the Highlands and Islands with the Scottish Green Party.

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