Virus hits east London swan and goose population

Bird flu has killed “at least” seventy wild swans and geese in North East London amid the first outbreak within the M25 in forty years, says a local swan rescuer.

The government is describing the ongoing bird flu outbreak as the “largest ever” and last week ordered all captive birds to be kept indoors to prevent the spread of infection.

Swan Sanctuary rescuer Gill Walker estimates that at least 71 swans and geese have died from the virus locally as a “sensible estimate”, although the exact total may be higher.

She told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “I have seen avian flu in the past but I’ve never seen it within the M25 before and I have more than 40 years of rescue experience.

“We’re really hoping it won’t spread beyond where it is but nobody knows, it usually abates after winter but this year we had it all through the summer – hopefully it will burn out.”

Gill said local residents of Eagle Pond, in Leyton Flats, have recorded that 24 adult swans and cygnets have died out of a population of 80, as well as 12 Canada geese.

She added that at least 35 swans and geese have died on other ponds in Wanstead but the exact number is not known as Epping Forest Keepers, managed by the City of London, are collecting the bodies.

Gill said she first spotted the bodies of dead birds in Valentines Park in early October, followed by Fairlop Waters and ponds in Wanstead and Snaresbrook.

But it was not until the end of October that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed that bird flu, or avian influenza, was in circulation in the area.

Avian influenza is not a risk to humans, but Gill said it is “highly contagious” between birds and currently there is no treatment or cure, so those too vulnerable to protect or feed themselves are taken away for euthanasia.

Guidance issued by local authorities is to keep to footpaths, keep dogs on leads and not touch sick or dead wild birds.

However, The Swan Sanctuary believes that wild birds are more likely to travel in search of food if they are not kept “well fed and happy” where they are.

Gill said: “Our recommendation is that people feed the birds but be very sensible, never from the hand and keep them in the water.

“We want a percentage of them to survive and – just like you or I – they need a good regular food supply.”

Residents on social media have reported distressing cases of dead birds in the water for days before they are collected, sometimes by volunteers for The Swan Sanctuary.

Redbridge resident Mary Redbourn told the LDRS it has been “upsetting” to see entire families of swans die at Wanstead Park.

She added that Wanstead Park locals hope that two surviving pairs, who have been named Anthony and Alesa and Bonnie and Clyde, will survive until next year to produce cygnets.

When contacted by Redbridge Council and the City of London, who both manage a number of large water bodies in North East London, have both declined to provide estimates of how many swans and geese have died.

A spokesperson for DEFRA said their teams are “heavily operationally focused” at this stage and unable to provide updates beyond published figures, which show only eight confirmed avian flu cases in Redbridge and Waltham Forest.

A Redbridge Council spokesperson said staff are “patrolling daily” to check in on birds and have erected signs in all parks to advise the public.

They added: “To help us protect wildlife in our parks and open spaces, please adhere to local government guidelines to risk spreading bird flu when visiting our parks.”

The public are advised to call Defra’s helpline on 03459 33 55 77 if they find:

  • One or more dead birds of prey or owl
  • Three or more dead gulls or wild waterfowl (swans, geese and ducks)
  • Five or more dead birds of any species

Do not touch or pick up any dead or visibly sick birds that you find

Alternatively, to report dead wild birds in Redbridge parks email parks.enquiries@visionrcl.org.uk and for Epping Forest (including Leyton Flats, Wanstead Flats and Wanstead Park) call 020 8532 1010.

Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter