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Sea eagle confirmed to have avian flu
A White-tailed sea eagle. Photograph by Valerie O'Sullivan.

Sea eagle confirmed to have avian flu

A WHITE-tailed Sea Eagle, which was born in the spring of 2017, has been confirmed to be Ireland’s first and only case of the highly pathogenic avian influenza this year.

The eagle, called Shannon, was found dead on the shores of Lough Derg in County Tipperary on January 31 and, following testing, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has confirmed that the avian influenza subtype H5N6 was detected in the wild bird.

This is the highly pathogenic strain that has previously been confirmed in Great Britain and mainland Europe. It is the only case detected in Ireland so far.

In a statement to The Clare Champion, the Department of Agriculture outlined that the White-tailed Sea Eagle is a re-introduced species, monitored by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Golden Eagle Trust.

“Any dead White-tailed Sea Eagle that are recovered are submitted to the Department of Agriculture’s regional laboratories for post-mortem. This was the only White-tailed Sea Eagle submitted this year so far. Our annual wild bird surveillance programme is continuing. We have tested 23 birds this year up to February 25. The White-tailed Sea Eagle is the only bird to be confirmed positive for highly pathogenic avian influenza this year,” the department outlined.

It highlighted that the virus isolated from this bird is currently being tested in the EU Reference Laboratory in Weybridge, UK, to determine if it is the same strain as the one detected in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland since early December.

Dr Allan Mee of the Golden Eagle Trust, who is over the reintroduction of White-tailed Sea Eagles in Ireland, confirmed the eagle that died is one of two chicks that hatched off the shore of Mountshannon in 2017.

He said it has not been conclusively confirmed that the eagle died as a result of the avian flu but that it was carrying the disease and it was the most likely cause of death.

He noted there have been “very few cases” of bird flu detected in White-tailed Eagles in Europe, although there was one detection in Sweden just recently.

“It is not definitively known how it got it [bird flu] but it is typically through wild fowl, like ducks, who come in during winter-time, so the only cases in birds that we know of have been in wild fowl, like ducks or swans, that died last year. So they are migratory duck that come in from the continent. It’s not here all year round and it disappears when the ducks migrate back. It is likely that he picked up a dead bird or a sick duck and picked it up that way. It is very rare and the risk is very low,” he said.

The primary risk would be if infected birds come into contact with poultry but he said White-tailed Eagles will have no contact with them.

“The risk is really with duck and domestic fowl, as they might end up in the same feeding locations. White-tailed Sea Eagles don’t pose a risk really to domestic fowl. When there is a case in an area, the department advice is to keep poultry indoors. It is quite rare but it is unfortunate. White-tailed Sea Eagles, particularly the young birds, are more inclined to scavenge something dead than to kill something, so they are vulnerable to something like this,” Dr Mee added.

The Health Protection Surveillance Centre confirmed that the risk to humans is considered to be very low, while the Food Safety Authority of Ireland has also confirmed that poultry meat is safe to eat, provided it is handled hygienically while raw and cooked thoroughly prior to consumption.

Dr Mee said the chick that died had been doing really well but that its short life wasn’t without its challenges. Only this past October, the bird had been taken into care by the Golden Eagle Trust for 10 days after it was suspected to have lead poisoning.

“It was picked up in the water on Lough Derg at the end of October near Islandmore and we suspected it had lead poisoning. It has gone through the mill. When we tested the bird, it had low levels of lead but a couple of days later, it regurgitated some food it hadn’t digested and it had lots of lead in it. It was from shot gun pellets, so it looked like it had been feeding on a rabbit that had been shot. Unfortunately, one of those bits of lead could have killed it. It survived and it is a shame because it was a very strong bird,” he said.

When the dead bird was recovered, Dr Mee said he was in great condition and weighed 6.5 kilos, however another complication was that it tested positive for rodenticide (rat poison).

“It probably didn’t feed on the poison but probably fed on something that itself had fed on the poison. It’s just a lesson to be careful of the use of rodenticide and to use it in controlled areas on farms and the likes. So between lead, rodenticide and bird flu, it’s number was really up,” he said.

The second chick to be born in 2017 is currently in Wexford, while another of the Mountshannon offspring is in Donegal, despite having been in the Wicklow region for some time. Another of the Mountshannon young is in Scotland currently.

Dr Mee said he would be hopeful of another successful breeding season in Mountshannon this spring and is also hoping that the chicks born might also begin to breed in the wild.

The department continues to closely monitor the disease situation and are in consultation with the poultry industry on possible future risk mitigating measures. The department is also maintaining close contact with its counterparts in Northern Ireland.

The department advises that “it is vital for flock owners to apply strict bio-security measures to prevent the introduction of avian influenza. In particular, flock owners should feed and water birds inside or under cover, where wild birds cannot access the feed or water. Keep poultry separate from wild birds by putting suitable fencing around the outdoor areas they access. Flock owners should remain vigilant for any signs of disease in their flocks, and report any disease suspicion to their nearest department veterinary office”.

The public is also advised not to handle sick or dead birds, but to notify the nearest department veterinary office or ring 076 1064403 or the outside hours number, 1850 200 456.

By Carol Byrne

An eagle, called Shannon, was found dead on the shores of Lough Derg in County Tipperary on January 31.

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