South Uist - already the location for the biggest Covid-19 outbreak so far on the Western Isles - could be the focal point for an outbreak of deadly avian influenza.

That's the fear following the identification of the highly pathogenic form in a wild bird carcass discovered on South Uist.

Locations of other dead birds has also been reported to the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar is now issuing a further reminder to poultry keepers about the serious risk of avian influenza (bird flu).

This "underlines the importance of poultry owners of complying with the current requirements in order to protect their flocks.  Whether owners have a few birds or several hundred they are legally required to keep birds indoors or take appropriate steps to keep them separate from wild birds.

"However, if that is not possible, ducks and geese should be kept in fully netted areas or temporary netted structures, even if it means confining them to a smaller area. All feeding and watering should take place indoors or under cover. Ducks and geese should not be kept with other poultry species as they often don’t show any signs of disease, but can still pass it on to chickens, turkeys or other poultry species.

"Do not touch or pick up any dead or visibly sick birds that you find in the wild. If you find a single dead bird of prey, gull or wild waterfowl (particularly swans, geese or ducks) or find five or more birds of any other species in the same location and at the same time, you should report them to the DEFRA helpline (03459 33 55 77 - please select option 7)."

The infected bird was a wild mute swan which had died and was tested posthumously.

It was one of only four cases of avian flu in wild birds reported to the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) in the first week of 2021, and the only one in Scotland, according to a data report published on Wednesday (13 January).

The APHA is the UK Government agency charged with maintaining records and disease control among wild and domestic animals.

Its scientists provided the evidence which presented the first confirmation of bird flu in the United Kingdom and explained that the evidence since the outbreak was first detected in November 2020 has been of unprecedented concern.

Professor Ian Brown, deputy director of science at the agency, said: “Our current response is focused on timely activity to manage high levels of disease threat to UK keepers of birds from highly pathogenic avian influenza.

“We are faced with unprecedented events, even in the context of avian influenza. Over 230 wild birds tested positive (in 2020), a total of 10 disease confirmations in poultry and captive birds and three different virus stereotypes in wild birds across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

“(It is) the first occasion the UK has been challenged with this complexity and number of events over a two-month period – and all in the early part of winter.”

The arrival of avian flu is linked to wild bird migration in the autumn and winter with the peak risk being in January and February.

This year the H5N8-20 virus strain was first detected at the beginning of November and is infecting both wild birds and poultry on small holdings and commercial production units.

A spokesperson for the APHA said: “This has come at a challenging time for our scientists, who are also supporting Public Health England and Defra and devolved administrations with additional activities on COVID-19 testing and SARS-CoV-2 applied research.”

For further information please visit the Scottish Government website: https://www.gov.scot/news/new-housing-measures-to-protect-poultry-and-captive-birds-against-avian-flu/