The H5N1 strain of avian influenza (bird flu), the strain most common to birds during this current outbreak, has been confirmed in a total of four seals along the east coast of Scotland since the current outbreak of the disease began in October 2021.

The affected seals, one grey seal and three harbour seals, were found in four coastal locations at Orkney; Highland; Aberdeenshire; and Fife. Three were confirmed to have the influenza in 2022 and one in 2021.

It is thought that the current outbreak of bird flu, which began in October 2021, is a result of wild birds that are carrying the disease migrating from the east.

It is not possible to determine that bird flu was the sole cause of death in these animals.

“Routine wildlife surveillance in the UK has detected the H5N1 strain in a small number of mammals over the past two years, although it is uncertain whether these died from avian influenza of other causes,” a spokesperson for NatureScot, which is concerned about the overall current bird flu outbreak, said.

“This is an unusual event in the UK and infection of mammals with influenza of avian origin remains an uncommon infection. The risk of the H5N1 strain to non-avian UK wildlife remains low.”

Bird flu in mammals

This year, only one mammal, a fox in Wales, has tested positive for influenza of avian origin.

Last week, UK officials confirmed that “enhanced” mammalian surveillance for avian influenza was initiated at the beginning of the year, mostly targeting mammals found dead near known areas of bird flu transmission.

However, the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) has said that evidence of mammal-to-mammal transmission in the wild remains very limited and data does not suggest widespread mammalian adaption of the virus.

“Infection of mammals with influenza of avian origin remains uncommon and the risk of the H5N1 strain to non-avian UK wildlife remains low,” an APHA spokesperson said.

“Samples taken as part of routine wildlife surveillance over the last year have detected the presence of influenza of avian origin in five foxes, four otters and four seals that were found dead – which is an uncommon event.

“Advice remains unchanged to not touch any sick or dead wild animals and make sure to wash your hands thoroughly with soap after contact with any animal.”

Chief superintendent of Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA), Mike Flynn, is also urging people to keep their distance from sick, injured and dead animals.

“We strongly advise that people keep their distance from any sick, injured or dead marine animals. Dogs should also be kept on a lead around wildlife at all times,” he said on behalf of SSPCA.

“Any birds, alive or dead, suspected of having avian flu would be a matter for Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to investigate.”

Concerns can also be directed to the SSPCA or NatureScot.

Dead seals, whales and dolphins should be reported to the Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme.

There have been other cases of bird flu in Scotland since the turn of the year: Near the seaside towns of Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire on January 12; near Tain, Highland on January 21; near Grantown on Spey, Highland on January 24; Clackmannan, Clackmannanshire, also on January 24; Stranraer, Wigtownshire, Dumfries and Galloway on January 28; and near Crossgates, Fife on February 2.