Scotland’s wildlife agency killed 57 barnacle geese to study the impact of avian flu because they wrongly feared it was illegal to test live animals, The Ferret can reveal.
NatureScot shot 27 of the protected animals at Dumfries and Galloway’s Solway Firth and 30 on the island of Islay in March, to discover how the virus – and the birds’ resistance to it – was progressing.
Communications obtained by The Ferret under freedom of information show that the wildlife agency wanted to capture, test, tag and release the geese, and later recapture them to monitor their health.
But staff were unclear whether it was legal to take blood samples from live animals without a licence from the UK Government’s Home Office. Concerned that the birds would have migrated north before a licence could be obtained, NatureScot shot and sampled the birds.
However, while taking blood samples from live birds is subject to close regulation, it is not illegal. A Labour MSP said it was “heartbreaking” that the geese “survived bird flu against the odds only to be killed by NatureScot”, when live testing could have been done legally.
One of the culled birds included a 19-year-old goose who made the 4,000-mile round trip to the Solway each year with its mate and offspring. The bird was thought to be important to the wider population due to its strong genes.
Animal welfare charities said they understood the need for NatureScot to act quickly but criticised the “conflicting” accounts of the rules which led to the bids being killed.
NatureScot argued that live birds could not have been sampled without the relevant licences and permissions, but stressed that these were now in place. The culls had not impacted the overall goose populations, it added.
Each winter, all the barnacle geese in Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago – and thousands from Greenland travel to the Solway and Islay respectively to take advantage of the relatively warmer climates.
But the two bird populations were the hardest hit by Scotland’s avian flu outbreak.
The virus reached the Solway in October 2021 and killed an estimated 13,200 geese – around one third of the migrating population. Last winter, Islay’s goose population was the most impacted, with at least 5,000 birds killed.
NatureScot’s internal communications
On 20 and 21 December 2022, NatureScot employees discussed the need to sample dead birds from both goose populations to test the impact of the virus. Samples were also needed from seemingly healthy birds, which could be caught and sampled “ideally by cannon‐netting” – a process in which birds are trapped in a net.
On 9 January, NatureScot contacted a cannon-netter to capture, sample, ring and release “as many birds as possible”. A briefing paper circulated later that month said that despite relatively fewer losses on Islay, the death rate increased in 2022/23, risking an “extreme mortality event” the following winter.
The reverse was true on the Solway, where numbers were growing despite high mortality rates during winter 2021/22. NatureScot wanted to know whether the Solway virus strain had become less pathogenic, and whether either goose population had developed an immunity.
An internal briefing from 23 January said cannon-netting was “ethically preferable”, especially as it may be “unachievable” to kill and sample enough birds to collect sufficient data on the outbreak.
However, there was “no possibility” of getting a Home Office licence or training staff to test live birds ahead of their migration. The Scottish Government had been asked whether its vets could perform the tests in this “emergency” situation.
While NatureScot might find antibodies to the virus in the birds it killed, this risked a “PR problem with organisations and individuals opposed to shooting”.
By 3 February, a vet from the UK Government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) had allegedly agreed to train NatureScot marksmen to take samples from shot birds in each location.
On 5 and 6 March, a University of Aberdeen staff member recommended to NatureScot, RSPB and others to proceed with cannon-netting, as being able to release and monitor the birds would be of “medium” to “high” value.
It was “bonkers” that it was apparently “illegal” to take samples from wild birds suspected of having bird flu, they added.
A 7 March email to someone outwith NatureScot said that it was “not clear in law” whether even APHA needed a Home Office licence to take bloods from wild birds. “Despite our best efforts, we have not been able to get clarity on this from the Home Office and Scottish Government, and we did not want to risk breaking the law,” they added.
On 13 March, an unnamed person shared “clear advice” from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), which highlighted that the Veterinary Surgeons Act allows the testing for pathogens including avian influenza in live animals for welfare reasons.
On the same day, NatureScot said that as the Home Office had still not advised the Scottish Government whether government veterinary inspectors were allowed to sample the birds, it was necessary for the shooting to go ahead.
On 16 March, a member of RSPB’s ethics committee wrote to NatureScot’s chief executive, Francesca Osowska, to condemn the shootings, arguing that “non-lethal methods involving catching and sampling live birds are a standard and common research technique”.
NatureScot’s avian flu taskforce “did not have a chance to discuss this move in any detail, and local stakeholders were given little notice of the shooting,” they claimed.
“Timely and detailed proposals for live capture for blood sampling purposes” from goose experts, were allegedly rejected by NatureScot, and it was “standard practice in the RSPB to seek assistance from [Home Office]-licenced third parties” to do such sampling.
Culls would not have impacted the goose population, RSPB conceded, but argued that “welfare considerations…should be taken seriously”. A local ornithologist told them that the shot birds included a 19-year-old goose who had returned to the Solway each winter subsequently with its mate and offspring, they claimed.
It was “wasteful” to kill such a bird, which can improve the genetics of future generations. NatureScot deemed RSPB’s reaction “disappointing” , claiming it “knew the reasons and that it was a one off exception”.
An RSPB Scotland spokesperson told The Ferret it heard “conflicting reports of the requirements and timings for taking a non-lethal approach in this situation”.
They added: “We continue to urge that non-lethal approaches are adopted in disease monitoring, and we look forward to hearing what the results of the blood analyses teach us about [avian flu] in wild birds.”
Goose cull “beggars belief”
Labour Mercedes Villalba MSP said it “beggars belief” that NatureScot culled the geese in order to test them.
“The fact that these birds survived bird flu against the odds only to be killed by NatureScot is heartbreaking,” she added. “NatureScot need to ensure that they have the relevant licences and trained individuals available in order that this never happens again.”
Edinburgh-based animal welfare charity OneKind said the bird flu outbreak at the two locations “required decisions with potentially serious consequences to be made quickly”.
“While we understand the pressure this must have put on those involved, we question whether the welfare of individual geese was prioritised sufficiently in the quest to protect wild bird populations,” said Bob Elliot, director.
NatureScot said it had taken out a Habitat Regulations Assessment and concluded that the culls would not impact on the geese populations as a whole.
“Since the avian flu outbreak began, our long-term plan has always been to ensure that trained and licenced NatureScot staff would have all the relevant required permissions to live capture and test wild birds, and we now have adequate staff with these qualifications to ensure wild trapping in the future,” said a spokesperson.
“This was an unusual situation with a very limited window, in which we felt it was vital to get information before birds migrated, so we can now respond as effectively as possible to the unprecedented outbreak of avian flu in wild birds. It is crucial to understand if immunity and resistance is building up in different populations.
Header image thanks to Pxfuel