Perhaps only the most dedicated twitchers can remember which godwit – the bar tailed or the black tailed – has the orange chest or tell the difference between a razorbill and a guillemot. For many of us, especially those stuck in cities for most of the year, it is simply enough to escape to the coast, breathe in the sea air and enjoy the iconic spectacle of the millions of seabirds that nest, feed or simply pass through our waters on their annual migrations.

Incredibly, each year the UK plays host to almost half the European total breeding populations of seabirds. Excluding your everyday ducks and divers, we have 25 breeding species ranging from the familiar herring gull – which most of us recognise as a “seagull” – to the shy and nocturnal Leach’s petrel, which breeds on a handful of remote Scottish islands. But dozens of other species come here over winter to feed or rest on their way to or from sunnier climes.

Most seabirds spending time here are long-lived, some surviving 40 years or more. This fact makes the current outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) that is now seeing thousands of seabirds washing up dead on our shores and menacing whole colonies of already threatened populations, all the more distressing. Populations in Scotland have been particularly hard hit. Bass Island, for example, is home to the world’s largest colony of northern gannets. But its pre-flu population of 150,000 is expected to halve in coming months if an urgent solution to the outbreak can’t be found.

Wildlife experts had thought gannets to be relatively impervious to avian flu and have labelled the current devastation as totally without precedent. They remain unsure as to why the virus is spreading so fast in coastal bird populations, or if it could potentially spread to other types of wildlife.

Tourism has also taken a hit from the outbreak, with many coastal areas having to be closed to the public, just as leisure industries are trying to get back on their feet after Covid. And as with that pandemic among humans, the H5NI avian flu strain did not start in seabird populations but was first discovered in poultry, throwing the spotlight back onto the dangers of some of our intensive farming practices. Whereas the pandemic raised the spectre of overflowing hospitals, veterinary resources available to deal with this outbreak are also being challenged, with the RSPCA announcing that it’s no longer accepting sick seabirds in its wildlife centres because of the risk of contagion. The organisation called the outbreak and its potential effect on bird populations “alarming”. Meanwhile, Defra has set up a taskforce to look at the spread of the virus and to try to prevent the deadly H5N1 strain from becoming a pandemic. But so far there seem to be few if any viable solutions, and with political attention focussed elsewhere, the future looks grim for British coastlines and their seabird populations.

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