Food for thought

swan2a©Geoff Wilkinson

Friends of Wanstead Parklands member Richard Arnopp reflects on the avian influenza pandemic and addresses the ongoing debate over the rights and wrongs of feeding our local wild birds at this time. Photo of Eagle Pond by Geoff Wilkinson

Avian influenza (bird flu) has been much in the news in recent months. It belongs to the same family of viruses as human influenza (which also ultimately originated in birds and reached us via domesticated pigs). It can infect human beings but, as it is not an airborne disease, does not spread very readily. 

The roots of the present pandemic go back to 1996, when the highly pathogenic H5N1 variant of the virus was first identified in China. This was the ancestor of the variant which spread west across Eurasia to reach the British Isles in November 2021. While there are many strains that are mild, H5N1 has a high mortality rate in susceptible species. There is no vaccine and no effective treatment.

By June 2022, it was being reported that British seabird colonies had been hit hard, with thousands of birds dying and some important breeding sites being left almost deserted. Locally, bird flu was confirmed in Epping Forest in October, and there have since been dozens of fatalities among geese and swans. Epping Forest, after consultation with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), published advice to the public as soon as bird flu had been confirmed:

  • Do not feed wild birds.
  • Do not touch dead or sick birds.
  • Keep dogs away from wild birds.
  • Do not touch wild bird feathers or surfaces contaminated with wild bird droppings.

The request not to feed birds – on the grounds that it encourages flocking – proved controversial, with two local organisations taking opposing positions. The local Swan Rescue group do good work picking up injured swans and geese and arranging for their treatment and rehabilitation. They have been very active during the bird flu outbreak and have encouraged the public to feed birds on the grounds that good nutrition will help them avoid or fend off infection. The Wren Wildlife and Conservation Group, on the other hand, with which the Friends of Wanstead Parklands work closely, agree with the official advice not to feed birds at this time.

The Friends take the official position on feeding seriously. The reason we have not hitherto taken a stronger line on social media is twofold. Firstly, at the time of writing, Epping Forest is not actively enforcing its no-feeding advice. So far, the death toll on the Forest’s water bodies has been lower than feared. Until something changes, it has publicised Defra’s advice but is not taking any further steps. Secondly, although the official no-feeding advice makes perfect sense in general terms, we acknowledge the argument that local conditions may justify a different approach. In the more urbanised south of the Forest, birds have come to expect and depend on feeding, and already live in unnatural population densities because of it. This may suggest a pragmatic case for continued feeding in present circumstances. To give a specific example, the many hungry birds on Eagle Pond, off Snaresbrook Road, can only be supported by additional feeding, as natural resources are insufficient. In the short term, there is possible evidence that the extra food supplies are helping some swans to overcome this infection. However, it is too early to claim it as a success as new arrivals attracted by feeding may bring in further infections. 

In principle, the sustained, predictable feeding of wildlife is not a good thing. As well as facilitating the transmission of disease, crowding in response to human intervention has a variety of other undesirable consequences. One is that each breeding pair of swans needs access to a reasonable sized aquatic territory with sufficient natural food to raise a brood successfully. Too small an area may cause territorial battles or prevent some individuals from pairing or successful breeding. Also, swans are large birds which uproot and consume submerged aquatic vegetation. They eat between four and eight pounds of material per day, often uprooting more than they consume. Overpopulation may cause ecological damage and overfeeding may lead to pollution and rat infestations from the dumping of food. 

Of course, the reality is that people like to feed animals and birds, and the wildlife likes to be fed, so trying to stop it is an uphill struggle. In the meantime, the watchword on bird flu is still ‘wait and see’. Ecologists are doing their best to monitor the situation, but data available so far does paint a worrying picture which will only be aggravated by the arrival of more migratory birds from Europe. If Epping Forest concludes that active enforcement of the no-feeding message is required during the bird flu pandemic, we will endorse that, and hope local people will cooperate.

To report dead wild waterfowl to Epping Forest, call 020 8532 1010

For more information on the Friends of Wanstead Park, visit swvg.co.uk/fwp