DEFRA has changed the way it identifies wild birds that may be carrying avian flu, as part of its routine ongoing surveillance for the H5N1 virus.

Under the changes, skilled wild bird ecologists and wardens will make year-round patrols in designated reserves. They will screen and assess both live and dead wild birds, in particular gulls, ducks, geese, swans and waders, for avian flu testing.

Birds shot as part of normal wildfowling activities will now not be sampled because the extended warden patrols will provide the coverage required. Other methods of sampling, including sampling of shot birds may still be used if needed in future, for example if a case of highly pathogenic avian flu in wild birds leads to a Wild Bird Control Area being declared.

DEFRA added that the likelihood of a wild bird found dead being infected with avian flu remains very small. Dead wild birds are screened because they are a useful source for sampling and not because their death is likely to be due to the virus.

The changes are a result of increased scientific knowledge and practical experience in handling incidents of avian flu and have the support of epidemiologists, expert ornithologists and DEFRA’s Animal Disease Policy Group.

Chief vet Nigel Gibbens, said: “The Wild Bird Survey has operated since October 2005 and we are able to improve its focus as our scientific knowledge and experience of avian flu incidents increases. I am confident that this change will enable us to identify any increased risk to domestic poultry from wild birds through better targeting of our surveillance effort.

“We will continue to keep the survey under review and update it when necessary,” he added.