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Documenting a national crisis for National Geographic

Updated: Dec 19, 2022

Throughout the summer months, I have had the bittersweet privilege to document the notable devastation of Avian Influenza in Scotland and Shetland for National Geographic.

Seabirds are one of the most threatened groups of species, facing a myriad of man-made dangers from overfishing to invasive species, poorly sited wind turbines, climate change and mortality in fishing equipment. The resurgence of this man-made virus only adds more pressure to their survival.

Northern Gannet carcasses strew the rock face of Hermaness National Nature Reserve on Shetland, which is home to 30,000 northern gannets, on July 4, 2022.

Documenting the devastation

Hermaness National Nature Reserve on Shetland's most Northerly isle was where I focussed much of my time, but my work began on the East coast of Scotland.

My first encounter with Avian Flu was on Bass Rock, where the virus had just arrived in June 2022. The scenes were distressing, with Herring Gulls affected worst and hundreds of empty Gannet nests peppering the rock. The scale of the impact was unknown, and strict bio-security measures were introduced to mitigate the spread caused by visitors. Within a few days of my visit, the island was closed, along with many others accessible seabird colonies.

A Northern Gannet lies off the coast of Bass Rock, the world’s largest breeding colony of the species, on June 6, 2022.

Towards the end of June, I continued my journey North to Shetland and Hermaness NNR. At this time, the virus had peaked but the trail of destruction was in some ways harder to witness than death itself.

The gannetries were strewn with carcasses and lines of empty nests like scars on the rock-face. You could see how the infection was spreading like a wildfire from the epicentre, and I feared for the birds who were next in line. In some areas of the colony, young chicks were hatching just inches from diseased bird bodies.

Image One: Rows of empty nest sites could be seen along the rock face of Hermaness National Nature Reserve on Shetland on July 4, 2022. Image Two - Four: Fallen Gannet carcasses hung and collected on most cliff faces.

Dead and dying Gannets could also be seen on the shores and clifftops in their final hours, stood lifelessly with their heads tucked underwing. It was harrowing to think that beneath their delicate white and golden feathers, their organs were failing. However, it was an opportunity to appreciate and admire the unseen details of their iconic plumage.

A Northern Gannet in its final moments on a clifftop in Shetland on July 4, 2022.

By far the most upsetting scene to document amidst the Avian Flu crisis was the inevitable demise of healthy Great Skua. As predatory seabirds, it was only natural for the Skua to predate the carcasses of Northern Gannets, but sadly they were oblivious to the risk, and all I could do was hold my head in anguish knowing that this meal had sealed its fate.

A Great Skua prepares to feast on a Gannet carcass on July 5, 2022. Predatory birds that eat the infected carcasses will likely catch bird flu themselves.

Empowering change

Some people may question why or how I photograph such sad events, but it is vital to remember the importance of doing so. Documenting the resurgence of Avian Flu has enabled a global audience to connect to the forefront of the issue, that most would never see with their own eyes. I firmly believe that photography can be used as a tool for empowering change by shedding light on wider environmental issues such as this one, and it is my hope that my images will play a part in doing so.

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