Call for volunteers to help birds devastated by avian flu outbreak in southern Scotland

The public is being asked to help prepare a perfect winter home for protected geese in southern Scotland.

Every autumn around 40,000 Svalbard barnacle geese – almost the entire population of the species – descend on the Solway coast to spend the winter months before departing for their northern breeding grounds in spring.

However, this year numbers have been decimated after an outbreak of deadly avian flu, which has wiped out nearly 40 per cent of the worldwide population.

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Now conservationists at RSPB Scotland’s Mersehead nature reserve near Dumfries are calling for people to help clear ragwort from the site in a bid to create ideal habitat for the geese ahead of their return later in the year.

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It is hoped the move might help the species recover.

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In a post on social media, the conservation charity said: “The Svalbard barnacle geese have now left RSPB Mersehead and the shores of the Solway estuary to depart on their 2000-mile migration back to the Arctic Circle.

“Our thoughts here at Mersehead have already turned to preparing the reserve for their return in the autumn.”

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Avian flu has decimated world population of Svalbard barnacle geese, which spend winter on the Solway coast. Picture: Lorne Gill/NatureScot

It continued: “Come and join us for the day or for a couple of hours, remove some ragwort and help to create prime barnacle goose habitat.

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“Many hands make light work.”

Prior to the avian flu outbreak, the Svalbard barnacle goose has been a conservation success story.

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The world population had declined down to a few hundred individuals after the Second World War as a result of disturbance of breeding grounds during the conflict and over-hunting.

Dead and dying barnacle geese have been found on shorelines from Wigtownshire to Dumfries-shire Pic: RSPB Scotland
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The introduction of legal protection for the species in the 1950s has had a major positive effect, with the overall population growing to around 40,000 individuals in recent years.

Losing 38 per cent of birds in a single season represents a serious conservation impact for the species, according to RSPB Scotland, so it’s important to provide any help possible.

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The charity said the latest avian influenza outbreak was the “worst on record”, with migratory geese which winter on the Solway being hardest hit.

Paul Walton, head of habitats and species at RSPB Scotland, said at the time: “We are in the grip of an unprecedented outbreak and unfortunately the Solway seems to be the epicentre of this in the UK.”

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He added: “Our teams on the ground are seeing many birds that are sick or dying and under significant stress.”

Barnacle geese prefer to feed on nutrient-rich short grass and an excellent way to create this habitat is by taking a crop of hay from the field.

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However, it’s important to make sure the cut hay contains no ragwort, as the chemicals it contains can cause liver damage in livestock if consumed in high quantities.

The call for helpers also highlights the human health benefits of getting outside.

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“Few things are more powerful than nature when it comes to living in the moment and relaxing,” it says.

“Take a deep breath and enjoy the sound of skylarks, the wind on your face, social interaction and help us create a wonderful habitat for the returning Svalbard barnacle geese.”

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Work will be taking place on 29 May – further details are available on the Mersehead Facebook page.

Avian flu has decimated a number of bird population and a link to raptors scavenging on carcasses has not been ruled out following a string of deaths of birds of prey in the Western Isles.

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Last August, two golden eagles and a white tailed sea eagle were discover near Bowglass in Harris on August 7.

Police said the raptors were significantly decomposed and forensic work was being carried out to try to establish how they died.

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