Avian influenza (or bird flu) is on the rampage, and the UK government introduced stringent new biosecurity measures earlier this week in an attempt to slow down the spread of the virus.
Captive birds, whether they be on large commercial poultry farms or in small domestic flocks, are now required to be housed indoors.
But the virus is also having a devastating impact on the wild bird population with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of sea birds dying in the last few months – with the west coast of Scotland being a particular hot spot.
The Isle of Man has not yet re-introduced the restrictions on captive birds, but such a measure can’t be too far away.
More than 100 wild greylag geese were found dead recently at the Point of Ayre, and tests undertaken by the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture (DEFA) show that at least one of them tested positive for bird flu.
It is highly likely, therefore, that they all died from the virus.
Bird flu is a pathogen known as H5N1, and it is probable that genetic mutations have increased the virus’s ability to replicate, allowing it to spread more effectively than previous strains could.
It is also now able to infect a broader range of bird species than previous strains could, and it seems to have developed a propensity for jumping to mammals such as seals.
There is no evidence, as yet, that it can spread from one mammal to another, and human cases remain rare (proving fatal to around half of those affected).
The UK Health Security Agency advises that the current risk to public health from the virus is very low.
Other consequences, though, are that farmed birds in the UK can no longer truly be described as ‘free range’ (although there is a period of grace before labelling needs to change); and producers will be forced to cull birds if they do not have adequate barn space for them.
This could lead to a shortage of fresh turkeys and geese for Christmas, and higher prices for all poultry produce.
We can’t allow bird flu to affect the way in which we treat our wild birds, especially as winter approaches and they become more reliant upon us for food.
Even if you are a regular bird feeder, you may not know that different species prefer to eat from different feeding stations: sparrows and tits like hanging feeders, ground feeding is preferred by blackbirds, robins and thrushes (although this is to be avoided if you have cats), and most birds enjoy the traditional, flat bird table.
These should be placed in areas where the birds have a good view of their surrounding area so that they can watch for predators, and within a couple of metres of a hedge or a tree so that they have somewhere to escape if they feel threatened.
Keeping your bird feeders, tables and baths clean is even more important than usual at the moment, and you should rotate them around your garden to prevent a build-up of potentially infected old food and droppings on the ground.
And don’t forget to wash your hands thoroughly after you’ve done this.
If you find, or own, a bird you suspect has bird flu please call DEFA’s animal health team on 685844.
If you find an injured bird please contact your nearest vet, the ManxSPCA or Manx Wild Bird Aid, for advice.
As long as you observe very strict hygiene measures it may be possible for you to bring the bird to a veterinary surgery, but you must stay in the car park with the bird in a box or container so that the vet can come outside to examine it.
None of us wants birds to suffer; nor do we want to spread the virus.