Bird flu alert hits region

WILDFOWLERS and birdwatchers in East Anglia are being put on alert to look out for any signs of avian flu coming to Britain.The region's nature reserve wardens and the shooting community are monitoring migratory birds, while poultry farmers are being informed of the potential risks to their stocks should avian influenza arrive.

WILDFOWLERS and birdwatchers in East Anglia are being put on alert to look out for any signs of avian flu coming to Britain.

The region's nature reserve wardens and the shooting community are monitoring migratory birds, while poultry farmers are being informed of the potential risks to their stocks should avian influenza arrive.

The British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) are among the organisations helping the Government screen migratory birds for the virus over a three-month period.

Surveillance of wild birds will be “stepped up” at the RSPB's nature reserves at Minsmere and the Stour Estuary reserve as part of the survey, which has been agreed by the European Commission.


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Rick Vonk, site manager at the RSPB Stour estuary nature reserve, said: “We are taking it very seriously. There is a theoretical but low risk with this. On the Stour, as we do at all RSPB reserves, we monitor the birds very carefully anyway because we keep information on what birds are present.

“At the eastern end of the estuary we carry out monthly recording during the winter months, about three a month. We will be stepping that up to some degree so it is at least weekly. We will be monitoring for sick and dead birds.”

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The BASC's action in East Anglia will concentrate on the Wash estuary in Norfolk, where samples will be taken from dead migratory ducks, legally shot in the course of normal wildfowling.

But the eastern branch said it would also be asking wildfowler members in Suffolk and Essex to keep a look out for birds that are not in a fit state, as they migrate to the region's shores.

William Heal, BASC eastern regional director, said: “The risk is assessed as low by Defra [Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] but the point is that the migrating birds from the continent, will hit the east coast of Britain first,” he said.

“If we want to pick up any problems as early as possible we need to pick it up on the east coast.”

Mr Heal said wildfowler members in the east, about 500 in Norfolk, 350 in Suffolk and 700 in Essex, were best-placed to monitor the species concerned as they were on the coast at different times.

The Wildfowl and Wetland Trust is carrying out testing of live wild birds as part of the Defra survey but a spokeswoman said they “do not have the infrastructure to catch any birds in East Anglia.”

The European-wide survey was sparked after reports linked wild bird populations to the spread of avian flu from China and Mongolia to Eastern Russia.

Since then the deadly strain of bird flu has been confirmed in Turkey, the closest it has come to Europe. British scientists analysed the diseased birds and found they contained the H5N1 virus which has killed around 60 people in Asia who had close and prolonged contact with infected birds.

The biggest fear is that the virus - which has a 50% mortality rate in people - could genetically mutate into a form which is easily passed from human to human, sparking a global flu pandemic.

Chris Knock, chairman of the Suffolk branch of the NFU, said: “We are still in the mode of keeping a watching brief. It's a huge concern but we see no real reason to upgrade our response at the moment.

“We are starting to talk to the people who keep poultry in the East of England and so NFU members who have poultry are being kept regularly updated by the NFU specialists. They are being very well informed of exactly what's going on.”

He said the people who died in Asia had direct contact with chickens, such as poultry farms workers, so those people in a similar position here were the NFU's main concern.

Mr Knock said: “We are keeping them informed on the hygiene systems they can put in place if it does arrive. The Asian people who have died had a huge amount of contact with the poultry. We do not live on the poultry units as they do out there.”

A Defra spokesman said: “The important point to make is that the risk of avian influenza coming into the UK via migratory birds from Russia is low.”

A strain of bird flu was detected in Norfolk in 1992 but was successfully brought under control and eradicated.

Anyone seeing unusually large groups of dead birds should call the Defra Helpline on 08459 335577.

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