AVIAN flu is causing “catastrophic” declines in Scotland’s seabird populations, according to a new report.

A study led by the RSPB quantified the impact Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) was having on the UK’s seabirds for the first time since major outbreaks began in 2021.

It found that the few positive or stable trends in Scotland’s seabird numbers have been reversed by the disease.

The flu has had a particularly devastating impact on great skuas – also known as “bonxies” – with a staggering 76% being lost as a result of HPAI.

READ MORE: The progress being made to rid Orkney of invasive stoats

Gannets, meanwhile, suffered a 22% decline in Scotland despite being one of only three seabirds species to record increasing numbers prior to 2021.

Scotland is home a large proportion of the global breeding population of both species (up to 60% of great skuas and 46% of gannets) meaning these declines have international implications.

The once relatively stable sandwich tern population has also thought to have been hit hard by avian flu, with Scotland’s numbers dropping by 22%.

Species understood to be declining before the 2021 outbreak – including arctic skua, arctic tern, and herring gulls – have continued this trend.

The National: Great skuas suffered a staggering 76% decline Great skuas suffered a staggering 76% decline (Image: RSPB Scotland)

Speaking about the findings Paul Walton, RSPB Scotland’s head of habitats and species, said “urgent” action was needed.

“Scotland is globally important for seabirds, and it is clear that people across Scotland care about their fate," he said. 

“The sight of so many dead seabirds on our cliffs and beaches over the last few years has been heartbreaking and left many fearful for their future. Those fears are well-founded.

“The declines in Scotland's seabirds revealed by the Seabird Count census last year are nothing short of catastrophic. And now we know the true situation is even bleaker as we see the additional population declines that have been wrought by the new threat from bird flu originating in East Asian poultry.

READ MORE: Scottish Government bans industrial sandeel fishing

“This is the latest in a long list of human-caused threats that are harming our seabirds.

“We have failed to adequately protect our marine environment and wildlife for decades. But we know and understand actions that would begin to turn things around, helping to recover and build resilience in our seabirds.”

The latest seabird census results showed that 70% of Scotland’s seabird species had suffered declines in numbers over 20 years, with these declines ranging from 11% to 79%.

The RSPB has called for immediate action to be taken to save seabird populations from further losses.

They include:

  • Introducing measures to avoid seabirds being caught by fishing vessels as bycatch, which is estimated to kill thousands of birds in Scottish waters each year.
  • A rolling programme to remove invasive non-native species from Scotland’s islands, such as the ongoing stoat eradication project in Orkney.
  • Safeguarding the most important seabird habitat on land and at sea via improved protection, monitoring and management measures.
  • Invest in long term monitoring programmes to help better understand the immediate and long-term impacts of HPAI.

It comes after the Scottish Government announced that industrial sandeel fishing in Scottish waters would be banned.

However, Walton added that more would need to be done to truly protect wildlife.

“This needs to be the wake-up call that finally makes a difference,” he said.

The National:

“These declines are telling us that our marine environment is in huge trouble and effective action is needed right now.

“The recent announcement of the closure of Scottish waters to industrial sandeel fishing is a significant step in the right direction and one we are delighted to finally see happen, but it is just one of many things needed to save Scotland’s seabirds.

“So, while we rightly recognise that progress, we must see this as a start of a process delivering the suite of urgent measures that are so badly needed.”