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

Each autumn around 40,000 Svalbard barnacle geese – almost the entire population of the species – come to the Solway coast to spend the winter months before heading to their northern breeding grounds in spring.

This year, however, the numbers were decimated after an outbreak of deadly bird flu that wiped out nearly 40 percent of the world’s population.

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Now conservationists at RSPB Scotland’s Mersehead Nature Reserve near Dumfries are urging people to help clear the ragweed to create an ideal habitat for the geese before they return later in the year.

It is hoped that the move could help the species recover.

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In a post on social media, the conservation organization said: “Svalbard’s barnacle geese have now left RSPB Mersehead and the banks of the Solway Estuary to embark on their 2000-mile migration back to the Arctic Circle.

“Our thoughts here in Mersehead have already focused on preparing the reserve for his return in the autumn.”

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

It continued: “Come and stay with us for a day or a few hours, remove some ragweed and help establish prime barnacle goose habitat.

“Many hands make light work.”

Before the outbreak of bird flu, the Svalbard barnacle goose was a conservation success story.

The world population had declined to a few hundred individuals after World War II as a result of disturbance of breeding areas during the conflict and overhunting.

Dead and dying barnacle geese have been found along coastlines from Wigtownshire to Dumfries-shire Pic: RSPB Scotland

The introduction of species protection in the 1950s had a positive effect, so that the total population has grown to around 40,000 individuals in recent years.

The loss of 38 per cent of birds in a single season represents a serious conservation impact, according to RSPB Scotland, so it is important to provide any help possible.

The charity said the recent bird flu outbreak was the “worst on record”, with migratory geese wintering on the Solway being the 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 appears to be the epicenter of it in the UK.”

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

Barnacle geese prefer a diet of nutrient-rich short grass, and an excellent way to create this habitat is to harvest hay from the field.

However, care must be taken to ensure that the cut hay does not contain ragweed, as the chemicals present in high quantities can cause liver damage in livestock.

The call for helpers also emphasizes the health benefits of going outside.

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

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

Work will take place on May 29th – more details are available on the Mersehead Facebook page.

Avian flu has decimated a number of bird populations and a link to carcass-eating raptors has not been ruled out following a string of raptor deaths in the western islands.

Last August, two golden eagles and one white-tailed eagle were spotted near Bowglass in Harris on August 7th.

Police said the raptors had been significantly decomposed and forensic work was being carried out to determine how they died.

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