Anglers and fishery owners have a vital role to play in alerting the authorities to any possible outbreak of Avian Flu amongst the wild bird population in Britain, according to Julian Hughes (right), Head of Species Conservation with The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Speaking to members of The Professional Coarse Fisheries Association at their Open Meeting at the West Midlands Golf Club on Wednesday, November 16, Julian Hughes said anglers and fishery owners should get to know which species of birds regularly visit their waters and look out for groups of birds showing lethargic symptoms or dying especially amongst species which migrate to the UK from Siberia and other parts of Russia in the winter.
Although he stressed it was too early to for people to become alarmist about Avian Flu arriving in the UK, he said: "It is clearly sensible for Government and society to plan for outbreaks of either avian flu, a disease of birds, or a global human flu pandemic - or both."
However, he said that at this stage it was sensible for people to keep abreast on a situation which was changing from week to week, adding: "Anglers, along with other conservationists and land managers, would play a vital role in detecting early signs of Bird Flu in the UK, reporting anything out of the ordinary to fishery owners and DEFRA."
Whilst common species of birds such as mute swans, greylag geese and mallards remain mainly in the UK, other species such as wigeon, teal, pochard, shoveler and Brent geese migrate here from Siberia where there have been several outbreaks of H5N1 avian flu among poultry. However, he stressed that it was uncertain whether wild birds could migrate long distances carrying the virus: all the wild birds found with H5N1 so far have been dead or dying.
"It is important, therefore, that anglers and fishery owners who see any multiple die offs of birds that are unusual in their experience should report it to DEFRA and take particular care not to handle any dead birds until the cause of death has been determined," he said.
He added that DEFRA had set up a Bird Flu Hotline where anglers and other interested parties could report possible outbreaks on 08459 335577.
He described the risk of a Bird Flu arriving in the UK as "low" at present, but he said that, longer-term, fishery owners and managers should plan for closures if the virus comes to the UK.
"Although we can probably breathe a bit easier than we could say, six weeks ago when bird migration was at its peak and there were several outbreaks of H5N1 in southeast Europe, it is the responsibility of all of us anglers, fishery owners, conservationists, farmers, gamekeepers to be thinking: 'What if?' This will make us better prepared for any outbreak," he said.
As a precaution, several wild bird organisations are carrying out a major surveillance of wild birds in the UK and this was something fishery owners and anglers could play a large role in helping with. He added: If there are outbreaks of Avian Flu in the wild bird population in this country, we should know about it very quickly because the UK probably has the best monitoring of wild birds in the world.
Ann Freeman, Chairman of the PCFA, said: "It is obvious that if there were any human-to-human outbreaks of the virus in the UK it would have massive implications for the way we travel and do things we currently take for granted. The potential effects on fisheries could be enormous because this is something which would affect the whole population."