It was mid August 2022 and, from the clifftop at RSPB’s Bempton Cliffs reserve, Yorkshire, there so many birds on the wing and so much noise – the piercing cries of the Kittiwakes Rissa tridactyla mingling with the guttural croaks of the Northern Gannets Morus bassanus – that I was able to convince myself that all was well. Then my eye was drawn to a tiny rag of white on the water far below, and I knew what it was before I raised my binoculars: the body of a Gannet.

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168. Dead adult Northern Gannet Morus bassanus on the sea below Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire, August 2022.

Alan Bayes

Ever since the outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) on Bass Rock, Lothian, in the spring, I, along with many others, had feared that it would reach Bempton. I hoped that by some miracle the disease might be confined to the far north; but then it reached the Farne Islands, Northumberland, and we knew it was only a matter of time before it spread to the Yorkshire coast.

On a visit made on 1st August to Filey Brigg, a little further along the coast, I had found a dead Gannet. The bird was badly decomposed and there was no telling how it had died. In any year, there are, unsurprisingly, fatalities among such a vast number of birds. Nevertheless, I had felt a sharp pang of disquiet.

In a normal year, large flocks of Gannets can be seen making their way south along the coast to the fishing grounds as others return north to the colony with food for their young. In high summer, this was still the situation, yet, by late August, the skies around Bempton had become strangely empty. There were large rafts of Kittiwakes out on the sea, which every so often would rise in a whirling cloud and fly towards the cliffs; very few gannets were in evidence, and those I saw, apart from a few groups of three or four birds, were lone individuals. A day or so later, things seemed to have picked up a little, but the large flocks seen earlier in the year never returned. There were more Gannets, but only in small groups; and I saw another dead bird in the water. It may be that they had found fish elsewhere and didn’t need to make the journey to the usual fishing grounds, but the shoals of Mackerel Scomber scombrus that were reported offshore from mid to late August would ordinarily attract fishing Gannets in their hundreds. The peak of the outbreak would seem to have occurred around this time.

The Kittiwakes, which stay on the cliffs until later in the year than the Gannets, were certainly affected. In late August, I saw the remains of a number of Kittiwakes on the cliffs: just feathers, nothing else. Every year some fall victim to predators, but there were more than usual this year. Presumably, they were dead birds that had been scavenged or, weakened by disease, easily picked off by a gull, Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus or a Red Fox Vulpes vulpes

In addition to the dead birds, groggy birds were found on the paths and clifftop at Bempton, and there were concerns from regularly visiting locals over the decision to keep the site open. The defence for this decision was that here, unlike at Bass Rock or the Farne Islands, visitors do not come into direct contact with the birds. They may, however, still touch diseased or dead birds or feathers shed by stricken individuals. While presenting little risk to the people themselves, such actions might increase the spread of the disease among the birds.

All of the RSPB volunteers and staff I spoke to either knew very little about the scale of the disease on site or were evasive, but a second justification for staying open was that, whereas Bass Rock and the Farne Islands had extremely dense concentrations of birds, being islands, the colony at Bempton is linear, with the birds distributed at less-frequent intervals. While this is true, some find the approach taken at Bempton difficult to understand. I checked Bempton RSPB websites (there’s more than one) and found no mention of bird flu. The impression given was that all was well at the site; indeed, bird flu might not exist. With responsibility for such an important colony, surely there was a case for at least considering closing the reserve to the public? The precautionary principle should, perhaps, have been applied.

The RSPB held a review of the season at Bempton in mid September, at which it emerged that a record number of visitors had come to the reserve that year; certainly, nothing had been done to deter visitors.. An observant visitor to the reserve might have seen near the visitor centre a solitary notice about avian flu the size of a sheet of A4 displayed about half a metre off the ground and easily overlooked. It was dwarfed by a nearby notice closer to eye-level advertising the presence of RSPB volunteers. There were strong gales in mid September and when I visited Bempton during that period, even that small avian-flu notice was face down on the grass. After I’d pointed out its position it was replaced, but in response to my comment, an RSPB employee told me that its size was irrelevant. I’m sure that companies which spend fortunes on enormous advertising billboards would be interested to know that.

Ronald and Stuart Ford take small parties out in their boat the Becca-Marie to view the Gannet colony and Stuart told me that he counted 30 dead Gannets along a 1-km stretch of water near Bempton during mid August. Reasoning that members of the public would be upset by the sight of so many dead birds, they cancelled their trips for the rest of the season. The Yorkshire Belle, which runs the RSPB seabird cruises, cancelled its sailings to view the colony around the same time.

By mid September, Stuart told me that he’d begun to see fewer dead birds on the sea in recent weeks, and the number of apparently healthy Gannets in the air just off the cliffs appeared to provide vindication of the RSPB’s decision to keep the site open, though there were very few young Gannets (gugas) on the cliffs. The disease had not yet finished with Bempton, though: photographs of a Gannet taken on 17th September revealed signs of apparent infection – instead of the pale, steely grey of the healthy Gannet, this bird had an eye that was entirely black. I was reminded of an X-Files storyline called ‘Oil’, in which people exposed to an extraterrestrial form of oil developed the blank, black eyes of sci-fi mutants. Life sometimes imitates fiction in unexpected ways.

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169. Subadult Gannet with an ‘oily’ black eye, Bempton, July 2022. Such a feature appears to be sign of an early infection of highly pathogenic avian influenza.

Alan Bayes

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170. Subadult Gannet with an ‘oily’ black eye, Bempton, August 2022.

Alan Bayes

The ‘black-eye’ phenomenon, while disturbing in its science fiction overtones, would appear to be an early and relatively minor indication of disease. Many questions remain, though: do all birds that develop these black eyes succumb to a full-scale infection? Is it something that might pass in a few days or weeks? In a colony of some 30,000 Gannets, it is highly unlikely that I photographed the first bird to be infected, so when did the disease first reach Bempton?

What was surprising was that the change in eye colour did not appear to impair the bird’s sight; affected birds continued to fly confidently and had no problem in navigating their way through the crowded airspace above the colony. In other respects, these birds seemed healthy, with plumage that appeared to be in good condition.

October brought reasons for cautious optimism. By mid-month, there were still several hundred Gannets on or near the cliffs and none of those I saw or photographed had black eyes. A mere handful of gugas remained and I was lucky enough to see what was probably the last but one leave. Perhaps the disease, at least for the time being, had run its course. 

My own understanding of HPAI relies on observation and photographs. To get some idea, however vague, of when the disease arrived at Bempton, I reviewed my photographs taken of birds there up to the current date – not a speedy task! From spring until the end of June 2022 there was nothing untoward, but a picture taken on 6th July revealed apparent evidence of infection in the form of the above-mentioned black eye.

For those of us who love seabirds, it has been – and remains – an extremely worrying time. Some of the volunteers who monitor the nest sites year on year know and recognise individual birds. For them, it must have been a particularly harrowing season. And what of our unique visitor, the Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophris? It flies with the Gannets. There must be concern over its future.

Britain is the spring and summer home to 56% of the world population of breeding Gannets and, pre-HPAI, Scotland held 46% of the world’s stock, so what happens to Gannet colonies in Britain is of major significance. Some 50 or so years ago, there were just 29 pairs of Gannets at Bempton. Since then, their number has increased enormously, to around 30,000 indviduals; but how many will return next season?

Just how many birds have died owing to HPAI is impossible to say. The RSPB had no statistics, or so I was told when I phoned them in 2022, although an RSPB volunteer I spoke to told me that 90% of young Gannets on Staple Newk, perhaps the most crowded site in the colony, had died in 2022; and yet they made relatively light of the fact, saying that a fierce spring storm could probably kill more birds than HPAI. Given the lack of statistics, how would we know? In any case, a storm, no matter how destructive, lasts only a short time whereas disease can linger for months or years.

For every dead bird spotted, there must have been many more that went unnoticed. A corpse on the surface is soon scavenged by gulls and seals, which may then be affected by the disease themselves, and from late spring onwards there had been an unusual number of seals close inshore at Bempton. Had they been attracted by the prospect of an easy meal in the form of a dead or dying bird? Even a bird as large as a Gannet is scavenged fairly quickly once it dies – but what of the smaller species? They are even more likely to die and disappear undetected. The conventional view is that the auks – the Razorbills Alca torda, Common Guillemots Uria aalge and Puffins Fratercula arctica – probably left the cliffs before the disease could seriously dent their numbers, and I saw no sign of illness within those species, but I do wonder nevertheless. 

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171. Juvenile Gannet close to fledging,with the decomposed corpses of two adult birds in the colony at Bempton, August 2022.

Alan Bayes

Defra was of no help, either, when it came to obtaining hard data about the outbreak at the Bempton colony. My phone calls to them in September resulted in the information that ‘one dead Gannet had been reported to the website in the week beginning 12th September’. Defra does have an online site dealing with HPAI in wild birds and produces a weekly tally of reports of affected birds in Britain. Going through the weekly tallies for the Yorkshire coast, I arrived at a grand total of five birds for the entire spring and summer up to mid September. This is bewildering. Even a cursory inspection of the Staple Newk site at Bempton revealed more dead birds than that. Had the RSPB volunteers not been instructed to report sightings of dead birds to Defra? Surely Defra itself should have organised teams to monitor what is happening at all the affected sites – but the Government appears completely unconcerned about what is happening to our wildlife. If reliance is placed on the public reporting dead birds, the system is going to fail in an area that is visited by large numbers of people, as on seeing a dead or ailing bird, an individual is likely to assume that someone else has already reported it. Add to that the fact that many people will not be aware that a dead bird should be reported, especially on nature reserves with on-site staff and volunteers, and the result is a scheme that is worse than useless. 

By far the greater proportion of data relating to HPAI concerns domesticated birds. It takes a bird between 24 and 72 hours to die once infected. The victim is unable to lift its wings or head, behaves in a confused manner and suffers convulsions. In chickens, mortality occurs in 90–100% of infections. Given that domesticated fowls are frequently raised in appallingly overcrowded conditions, one may cling to the hope that wild birds would be subject to lower mortality rates. 

Ironically, after weeks of anxiety over the predicament facing our wild birds, I returned from a visit to the cliffs on 15th October to find a letter from Defra on the doormat, informing me that if I kept poultry or pet birds, from now on they must be housed indoors. Wild birds lie beyond their concern, evidently.  

Unanswered questions swirl around my mind. Are the immature birds – it takes a Gannet four to five years to reach adulthood – more susceptible to the disease than the older birds, or does it kill indiscriminately? Is it always fatal, or can a bird recover from the flu? And what of the other species, the auks and Kittiwakes? By now, vets and scientists at Bass Rock and the Farne Islands may know the answers to these and other questions. Yet in a sense they’re irrelevant: we are powerless in the face of the disease, at least as it relates to wild birds, or so Defra appears to believe. To date, the Government has ignored the problem; indeed, it shows a shocking indifference to questions relating to wildlife in general. The disease will run its course and not until into the 2023 breeding season, when the survivors return to nest and breed, will we see the real extent of the tragedy. We can only hope that the population that has grown so rapidly in recent times doesn’t crash. 

There may be support for cautious optimism in a statement issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA, which said: ‘While some wild bird species can be infected with some HPAI A(H5) or A(H7) subtypes without appearing sick, other HPAI A(H5) or A(H7) virus subtypes can cause severe disease and mortality in some infected wild birds.’

As expected, avian flu has returned to Bempton in 2023. I photographed black-eyed Gannets there in late January and again in late February. Once again, in other respects the birds appeared healthy. A crucial question is, were they recently infected birds or were they individuals already showing symptoms of the disease? Furthermore, do some birds in the colony now have immunity or will an outbreak in 2023 be just as devastating? Only time will tell. 

Alan Bayes, Briddlington, Yorkshire;

Alan Bayes has been writing about wildlife and environmental issues for many years. He first visited Bempton Cliffs more than 30 years ago and has been watching and photographing the birds and other wildlife there for the last 14 years.

Issue 5
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