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Bird flu: The wild goose chase

As the search for the source of bird flu in the Netherlands becomes more urgent, there is a danger that wild birds will become scapegoats.

The Netherlands is receiving more attention than the UK and Germany, where the same H5N8 strain has been found, because it has had the highest number of cases so far with four.

 

Despite every case so far being found in indoor farms, some are arguing vociferously for all free range flocks to be brought indoors and claiming wild birds are responsible for giving farm birds the disease.

Playing the blame game

The risk of simply blaming wild birds is two-fold. Firstly, it could divert attention and resources away from other issues, such as the fact that intensive indoor farms are ideal incubators for avian influenza, as the virus can jump between birds that are packed into sheds in such tight proximity.

Secondly, there is a danger that some may call for a cull of wild birds, which would have serious consequences not only for those birds but also for the ecosystems they are part of – not to mention the fact that the significant problem of intensive farms will not have been addressed.

Finding the solution

A statement made by the Scientific Task Force on Avian Influenza and Wild Birds, which is made up of organisations including Bird Life International, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the Royal Veterinary College, is clear:

“Highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreaks are most frequently associated with intensive domestic poultry production and associated trade and marketing systems.”

It urges organisations and authorities to:

“Ensure there is no consideration of killing of wild birds or negatively affecting wetland habitats as disease control measures; and recognise that focussing attention on wild birds, to the exclusion of other potential viral vectors, can misdirect critical resources away from effective disease control and result in continued spread among poultry populations and economic losses to farmers and national income, as well as negative conservation outcomes and loss of biodiversity.”

The International Poultry Council (IPC) has warned that any restriction on movement of breeding stock could affect domestic food production for “months or even years”. But not addressing the problem of intensive farms could have a far worse effect on our ability to produce food sustainably.