THE TV presenter and naturalist Chris Packham has called for action to save an iconic Scottish bird species, whose population has been devastated by avian flu.

An RSPB report released on Tuesday found that Scotland’s population of great skuas – colloquially known as “bonxies” - had declined by a staggering 76% since 2021.

Paul Walton, RSPB Scotland’s head of species, told The National that local extinctions of great skuas were “entirely possible”.

“I can guarantee that some colonies will disappear,” he said.

“The 76% figure is for Scotland’s population as a whole but the pattern isn’t equal. For example, on the island of Foula bonxies declined by 83%.

READ MORE: Avian flu causing 'catastrophic' decline of Scotland's seabirds

“It’s a huge concern”.

Scotland hosts 60% of the global population of great skuas, which are known for their aggression and hardiness.

They are often spotted harassing other seabirds to steal their catch and can even prey on smaller birds such as puffins.

Before the latest outbreak of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza in 2021 they were among the few seabird species in Scotland whose population was stable.

However, they have been particularly hard hit by avian flu.

The National: Great skuas are known for their skill in stealing other birds' mealsGreat skuas are known for their skill in stealing other birds' meals

Packham told The National that the RSPB’s report was “heartbreaking” and expressed his love of great skuas.

“It seems never ending, that whenever we get a step forward we get knocked two steps back,” he said.

“The RSPB report is heartbreaking – they work so hard, not just as an organisation but as committed individuals, working at the cruel, hard coal-face of conservation.

“But we simply must not lose hope and give up.

“I always say ‘winning is not giving up’ and now more than ever our birds need us all.

“What's particularly tragic is the impact on great skuas – the Hell's Angels of the northern skies – such good birds and so important in Scotland, as it holds internationally important numbers of these extraordinary birds.

READ MORE: Scottish ministers launch blueprint to tackle depopulation

“But we must also consider the source of this avian scourge: factory-farmed birds in the far east. That's where this vile disease originated.

“We have to join up our thinking in conservation. There is no point in on-the-ground UK conservation unless we are dealing with the root cause, factory farming must end, and this must be part of the message”.

Walton said that researchers had managed to count around 81% of the total great skua population in Scotland.

In terms of numbers, the losses equate to 9088 pairs declining to 2160 since 2021.

“On the island of Foula in Shetland, which has the world’s largest colony of great skuas, that colony went from 1846 pairs to 308,” said Walton. “It’s just a massive, massive decline and totally unprecedented.

The National: Avian flu has devastated seabird populations around ScotlandAvian flu has devastated seabird populations around Scotland (Image: PA)

“Seabirds are long-lived animals. I believe the oldest great skua ever recorded is 38-years-old.

“So, they tend to have a very high survival of adults from one year to the next and a slow breeding rate.

“What that means is when adults start dying in large numbers, they have difficulty breeding fast enough to make up the losses.

“We don’t know exactly what’s happened elsewhere in the world, where the other 40% reside in places such as the Faroe Islands, but you can see it’s just a major impact on the global population”.

He added that ornithologists were “shocked” great skuas were so heavily impacted by the disease due to their reputation as hardy birds.

RSPB Scotland has called for a package of measures to be put in place to try and help seabird populations, including more comprehensive monitoring and the delivery of the Scottish Government’s seabird conservation strategy.