The windswept clifftops of Rouzic Island should be teeming with gannets, but this summer on France’s Atlantic coast, an off-season wave of bird flu has devastated their numbers, alarming conservationists and poultry farmers. Thousands of seabirds have died along France’s western coast in recent weeks due to a viral infection that usually strikes during the autumn and winter months, raising fears it could become a year-round risk and endemic to French wildlife. This poses a danger to the French poultry industry, the second largest in the European Union, which was forced to cull more than 19 million birds from November to May due to bird flu, as bird flu is formally called.
“Bird flu attacks seabirds in the spring and summer, which is completely new. Bird flu traditionally affects mainly waterfowl in winter,” said Mr. Pascal Provost, director of the bird sanctuary in the Sept-Iles archipelago, which includes the island of Rouzic. After a brief calm on farms in May, the French government eased restrictions on poultry farming in June.
Soon after, however, the virus hit flocks along the coast of Brittany and slowly spread south. Rouzic is home to one of the world’s rare colonies of Nordic terriers. Mr Provosts said bird flu had been ravaging the flock since early July, killing adults and starving their chicks. Seven new outbreaks of bird flu have been confirmed on French farms since the end of July, according to the agriculture ministry.
“The situation is exceptional – never seen before in France – given its scale and the time the cases are being detected,” the ministry said on its website, warning of the risk of contamination of poultry farms. French poultry farmers are still recovering from previous outbreaks and the mass culling that followed, and had already faced almost a 10 percent drop in production this year before the latest outbreaks, industry group Anvol said.
“Previously, bird flu epidemics were caused by migrating birds, but now we are seeing more and more cases in French wildlife. This is new and it worries farmers and the entire poultry industry,” said Anvol chairman Jean-Michel Schaeffer. Bird flu is usually transmitted through the droppings of infected migrating wild birds or through direct contact with contaminated feed, clothing and equipment.