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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 February 2007, 18:54 GMT
Wild birds hit in H5N1 blame-game
By Adrian Pitches
Environment Correspondent, BBC News

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When the H5N1 bird flu outbreak was identified at the Bernard Matthews turkey production complex in Suffolk, following an outbreak in Hungarian poultry farms, some pointed the finger of blame at wild birds.

Presumably, a kamikaze duck had plunged head-first down a ventilation shaft into the sealed hangars containing turkeys.

Death sentence

Wild birds have long been blamed in South-East Asia, where H5N1 is now endemic in the poultry industry.

In July 2004, the Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra called for wild openbill storks (Anastomus oscitans) to be slaughtered when H5N1 broke out in Thailand's poultry farms.

The storks' death sentence was only lifted when conservation group Birdlife International intervened.

And Birdlife says it has also been working to debunk initial claims about the origin of the H5N1 outbreak in Suffolk.

Turkey (generic)
The H5N1 strains in Hungary and UK are nearly identical

A spokesman said: "It is BirdLife's view that the authorities must work harder to present a balanced picture, and not allow automatic implication of wild birds as the likeliest vector every time an outbreak occurs.

"Even without additional evidence, the circumstances in these cases should have strongly suggested that other means of transmission were more likely."

Wild birds are not yet migrating and, of course, summer migrants to Britain fly north from Africa, not west from Eastern Europe.

In early 2006, there were westward movements of wildfowl in response to freezing conditions around the Black Sea. But this year, there has been no substantial transit of wintering birds in Europe in response to unusual weather conditions.

Surveillance schemes

There are active H5N1 surveillance schemes for wild birds in both Hungary and the UK, and no suspicious deaths of wild birds have been reported.

In the UK, 2,344 wild birds (found dead or shot by hunters) have been sampled since September 2006, with no H5N1 recorded.

Similar tests in Hungary (including live birds captured for ringing) have also shown up no H5N1.

If you want to know about wild birds, ask an ornithologist
Andy Musgrove

The two outbreaks have been in closed farms, at least one of which has high biosecurity.

If H5N1 were present in the environment and being carried by wild birds, it would be much more likely that free-range poultry would have keeled over first, say experts. But they haven't.

The RSPB's director of conservation Dr Mark Avery said: "Some commentators and non-ornithological experts are making rash assumptions about wild birds and their involvement in the spread of H5N1.

"Whilst it is prudent to work on the assumption that this virus is present in some wild birds in Europe, what is known about this outbreak is difficult to reconcile with the idea that wild birds have brought H5N1 from Eastern Europe to sealed sheds in Suffolk."

Andy Musgrove, of the British Trust for Ornithology, is a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) advisor on bird flu.

He said: "Britain is a world leader in ornithological science, largely due to the unsung efforts of thousands of volunteer birdwatchers who provide us with unique data-sets with which to work.

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"In the case of the current outbreak, we were immediately contacted by Defra. We felt throughout that it looked exceptionally unlikely that the virus had been introduced by a wild bird.

"This opinion was largely based on the absence of any report of an infected wild bird anywhere in Europe this winter, despite much-heightened levels of targeted surveillance.

"We communicated this opinion to Defra officials, who appeared to us to keep an open mind to all possibilities.

Dr Musgrove added it was unfortunate that some experts quickly jumped to the conclusion that wild birds were to blame.

"If you want to know about wild birds, ask an ornithologist," he said

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