Castle Espie currently closed following suspected bird flu infection

Disease control measures have been introduced at the Castle Espie Wetland Centre in Co Down after a suspected case of bird flu was found in captive birds.

The Department of Agriculture has put in place a 3km disease control restriction zone around the popular Comber reserve as a precautionary measure.

Ths means all poultry and captive birds must now be kept in secure housing or otherwise kept separate from wild birds.

The Wetland Centre is temporarily closed to the public as a result of the measures.

Its website currently says: “This is to protect the birds in our care and those returning to spend winter on our reserve, and is in line with requirements from the UK government.

“We apologise for the disappointment we know this will cause. We will keep this page updated with any further updates as soon as we have them.

"If you have booked to visit us this week, we'll be in touch to arrange a transfer of your tickets or a refund.”

Castle Espie Wetland Centre, managed by the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), the UK’s leading wetland conservation charity, is home to over 60 acres of pristine wetland habitat filled with a range of wildlife including rare and under threat species.

The WWT Castle Espie Wetland Centre in Co Down
The WWT Castle Espie Wetland Centre in Co Down
The WWT Castle Espie Wetland Centre in Co Down

It is situated on the shores of the Strangford Lough where almost the entire world’s population of Light-bellied Brent Geese resides during the winter months.

The move follows initial laboratory confirmation of notifiable avian flu and anyone who keeps birds urged to immediately review their biosecurity measures to protect against this highly infectious disease.

Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots has said: “To date there have been over 180 cases of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) H5N1 across the UK, since the first case confirmed in England on October 26, 2021.

“There have been six confirmed outbreaks in Northern Ireland over the past 12 months, the most recent in February, with a significant number of wild bird findings across the year. In addition, there have been six confirmed cases in the Republic of Ireland. Prior to this the largest number of cases in Great Britain was 26 cases in 2020/2021 and 13 cases in 2016/17.

"The continual positive findings of H5N1 across Great Britain, and findings through our wild bird surveillance programme, suggest that the disease is already once again present in Northern Ireland. It is of paramount importance that all bird keepers take appropriate action to review and enhance their biosecurity measures to protect their birds from this highly infectious disease.

"No poultry premises or captive bird site is immune from a potential incursion. All must take immediate action now to protect not only local flocks and commercial premises, but our entire industry and specialised conservation and educational sites, from this dreadful disease.”

Chief Veterinary Officer for NI, Dr Robert Huey, added: “All flock keepers must take action now to review and, where necessary, improve biosecurity in order to prevent an incursion of the disease into our poultry flock. If Avian Influenza were to enter our Northern Ireland commercial flock, it would have a significant and devastating impact on our poultry industry, international trade and the wider economy.

"In addition, the negative financial and emotional impact on the individual farm family and business is something we have seen all too often with disease incursions and we must do everything we can to avoid this, particularly at this time of heightened risk.”

DAERA encourages anyone with their flock (however small) not already registered to ensure they do so with the Department so that we can reach you directly with future communications and updates. You can register by contacting your local DAERA Direct office or online via the DAERA website. You can also sign up to the text alert service simply by texting 'BIRDS' to 67300. This will allow you to receive immediate notification of any important disease information, allowing you to protect your flocks at the earliest opportunity.

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Avian Influenza is a notifiable disease. Anyone who suspects an animal may be affected by a notifiable disease must, by law, report it to their local DAERA Direct Office.