Heartbreak as bird flu outbreak decimates rare colony: 'Tip of the iceberg'

·Environment Editor
·3-min read

Avian influenza has swept through a world-famous bird sanctuary, leaving a veteran photographer shocked.

After visiting the Farne Islands last week, Owen Humphreys took to Twitter on Tuesday to share heartbreaking images of the virus’s impact.

"I’ve been covering stories on the Farne Islands for over 20 years, but I’ve seen not seen scenes like this," he wrote.

Glad from head to toe in PPE, rangers collected the bodies of thousands of dead birds on the Farne Islands. Source: Owen Humphreys / PA
Covered from head to toe in PPE, rangers collected the bodies of thousands of dead birds on the Farne Islands in the UK. Source: Owen Humphreys / PA

Mr Humphreys snapped away as rangers clad in full-body-PPE worked to lessen the spread of the disease on the islands off the northeast coast of England by scooping up the dead birds for incineration.

Puffins and seagulls killed by bird flu outbreak

Speaking with Yahoo News Australia on Tuesday night, Mr Humphreys said he is usually called to the islands to cover happy stories of seal pups and bird census counts.

When he first arrived on shore, there weren’t any dead birds visible, but when he clambered down the rocks then “the scale” of the carnage became evident.

Puffins watch on as dead birds are collected from the Farne Islands. Source: Owen Humphreys / PA
Puffins watch on as dead birds are collected from the Farne Islands. Source: Owen Humphreys / PA

“Literally there were birds everywhere and all different kinds,” he said.

“It wasn't just one breed of bird, it was puffins, cormorants and even seagulls.

“On the day we went out they picked up thousands, literally bagfuls.

“But during the time we were out there, which was hours, they certainly didn’t have time to pick up the whole lot. I think what I saw was probably the tip of the iceberg.”

Tourist boats no longer allowed to land on Farne Islands

The islands are home to approximately 200,000 birds and are cared for by the UK’s National Trust.

While people are currently prohibited from setting foot on the island due to disease concerns, boats are continuing to travel close by, allowing tourism to continue.

While transmission to humans from the H5N1 strain of avian influenza is low, there is concern about travellers spreading it to other flocks on the mainland.

Avian influenza an annual event in UK

Earlier in July, bird flu cases were confirmed at Coquet Island, off Northumberland’s coast, an internationally significant home to 82,000 seabirds.

More than 100 farm cases, and 300 wild bird outbreaks have been reported across the UK in 2022.

The H5N1 strain is now an annual occurrence in the UK, and is believed to have originated in Chinese or southeast Asian poultry farms in 2003.

Source: Yahoo / Getty
Source: Yahoo / Getty

Birds who are infected are often found twisted on the ground dead in grotesque positions.

Despite the horror Mr Humphreys saw while photographing the birds he said it hasn’t degraded his impression of them as a beautiful location.

“There's been many testing things that have gone on recently, I guess this is just another one of them,” he said.

We’ve had Covid ourselves, and now bird flu in the animals. The Farne Islands are just incredible, and I’m sure once this passes, it will be again.”

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