France fears bird flu is here to stay

White bird dead on ground, France fears bird flu is here to stay
Northern gannet died from bird flu, Brittany, France, September 6, 2022, credit: Reuters/Stephane Mahe

Thousands of seabirds have died from bird flu along France’s western shores in the past weeks. Conservationists fear bird flu has become a year-round virus common in French wildlife.

The island of Rouzic is home to northern gannets and should be crowded with them at this time of the year. But adults and chicks have been dying from bird flu.

“Since July 1, we have been seeing a decline of this colony (of northern gannets), with the discovery of tens of dead birds,” Pascal Provost, director of the Sept-Iles Natural reserve, said.

“We have lost 80 percent of chicks, within one month and a half since early July, although it’s usually a period during which the chicks are quite resilient. In fact, they’re dying because of the absence of the parents who are not returning from the sea,” he added.

“We’ve seen this colony disintegrate within weeks, and today, they present completely abnormal thinning out and birds that are dying by dozens, hundreds, in the colony. This is an unprecedented and quite terrible situation.” Provost explained.

“There have been (bird flu) virus mutations, it seems, and other strains which formed and heavily hit communities of seabirds both in the winter and in the summer, which is completely new,” he added.

“First, it’s scary. It’s tragic for the birds and this entire colony because they’re a part of our lives,” local resident Odile Thomas (68) said.

“I’m a lot more worried for bird flu connected to French agricultural production, especially foie gras, ducks and all that,” another resident, Ker Vasdoue (79), told news agency Reuters.

19 million birds killed
France has the second largest bird farming industry in the European Union. Between November 2021 and May this year, France killed more than 19 million farm birds because of bird flu outbreaks. The animals and their bodies were destroyed after every outbreak.

After a brief decline in bird flu outbreaks at farms in May, the French government loosened bird farming restrictions in June. But soon after the restrictions were lifted, there were bird flu outbreaks at farms along the Brittany coast in France.

Since late July, seven new bird flu outbreaks have been confirmed on French farms, according to the agriculture ministry. “The situation is exceptional – never encountered in France before – due to its scale and the period (summer) when cases are being detected,” the ministry said on its website.

“In the past, episodes of bird flu happened with the coming of migratory birds, and more and more, we are realizing, especially this year, that bird flu is also present in wildlife in France,” Jean-Michel Schaeffer, chairman of bird farming industry group Anvol, said. “That’s a new phenomenon, and it worries farmers and other actors in the sector.”

As a result of intensive bird farming, the highly pathogenic H5N1 type of bird flu emerged, according to Dutch virologist Thijs Kuiken of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

“Normally, wild birds only carry the low-pathogenic variant. In intensive poultry farming, this mild flu mutated into a serious variant,” he said. The H5N1 variant escaped from intensive bird farms in Asia and has been spreading through Asia, Europe, Africa and North America.

“In the long term, we have to realize that the intensive way of raising animals, with a huge number of animals huddled together in one spot, is no longer sustainable for many reasons,” Kuiken explained.

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