Paul Walton gives an update on the worrying bird flu threat to Scottish seabirds and outlines action needed to protect our precious wildlife.

The loss, to a deadly new strain of Avian Influenza, of 1/3 of the entire Solway barnacle goose population last winter was an unprecedented tragedy. It took us into uncharted territory regarding Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) and wild birds. RSPB Scotland staff, with the help of our supporters, reacted quickly and effectively. Since then, we have been watching wetlands, coasts, and other areas where wild birds gather, for signs of any further impacts.

A dead barnacle goose at Mersehead. Image: RSPB Scotland

Seabirds have now become the focus of concern. Late last summer, sick and dead great skuas were found in Shetland, Orkney, the Flannan Isles and St Kilda. Corpses tested positive for HPAI. This happened just prior to migration – the species winters off North and West Africa – so the scale of impact on the population was unclear. Now the skuas, are back and RSPB Scotland is collating data from colonies to assess impacts – but an unexpected and worrying finding is that great skuas are again sick and dying from HPAI. Scotland supports around 60% of the entire world population of this species.

We have also seen HPAI being confirmed in other seabirds, including guillemots, gulls and, more recently, gannets.

Three factors make this development highly significant.

  1. Scotland’s seabird populations are of major global significance.
  2. They are already under massive pressure from human impacts including climate change, lack of prey fish, deaths through entanglement in fishing gear (known as by-catch) and development pressure - the index of 11 breeding seabirds in Scotland has declined by almost half since the 1986.
  3. Many seabirds breed in dense colonies, now risking rapid and devastating spread of HPAI viral infection.

Whilst Avian Influenza circulates in wild birds quite normally, and has for millennia, the new strain of HPAI is a more recent issue and hitting already struggling bird populations. It originated in intensive poultry operations in East Asia, and has now spread into wild birds by two mechanisms: the movement of poultry, poultry products and associated vehicles and equipment; and through the movements and migrations of wild bird populations. It is now recognised by the United Nations  that "Wild birds are victims of HPAI viruses."

Given the major uncertainties about this new and emerging threat to wildlife, RSPB Scotland is urging the Scottish Government to do all it can to alleviate additional pressures on wild birds affected by HPAI in line with UN recommendations. We are in discussions regarding the development of a national HPAI in Wild Birds Response Plan. This should establish effective HPAI surveillance; biosecurity to safeguard wild bird populations; virus testing and carcass collection; minimising of human disturbance during local outbreaks; coordination with HPAI measures for poultry, gamebird rearing and captive flocks.

These are clear and immediate imperatives. But the most important message is that we must immediately elevate the political priority and funding directed towards the effective conservation of our wild bird species. There is a great deal that we can do for seabirds given the political will: a programme of ecosystem restoration for seabird islands and a lasting biosecurity legacy; an end to fishing for key seabird food species like sandeels; effective monitoring and constructive collaboration with fishing businesses to reduce seabird deaths from by-catch in fishing gear; the provision and maintenance of secure seabird breeding sites and ensuring that the imminent expansion of marine renewables, necessary to help tackle the climate emergency, minimises further harm to nature, and only happens in parallel with measures that restore nature.

If Scotland makes these a reality now, we will build resilience into our seabird populations, making them better able to cope with new human pressures like HPAI. The forthcoming Scottish Biodiversity Strategy and Seabird Conservation Strategy must move beyond rhetoric and deliver real actions at pace that result in positive impacts for our precious wildlife.

Although the risk of contracting the disease from a wild bird is very low, we recommend that people do not handle sick or dead wild birds, remain vigilant, and report dead seabirds, wild waterfowl (swans, geese or ducks), or birds of prey to the UK government Defra helpline (03459 33 55 77). Everyone, at all times but especially now, should take care to maintain good hygiene when feeding garden birds – regularly cleaning feeders outside with mild disinfectant, removing old bird-food, and spacing-out feeders as much as possible.

Main image: Great skua by Andy Hay (

  • I live in Embo, near Loch Fleet which has been very badly hit. I reported 2 different outbreaks to defra who came and collected the dead birds to test them. However Highland Council were of no help at all - thier policy is to leave the dead birds on the beach (which is a major tourist attraction). No amount of arguing with them elicited anything than the response that the policy was to not remlove the carcasses. 

  • We have just been to Hermaness in Unst, Shetland and were shocked to see the amount of dead gannets at the stacks at Muckle Flugga.  We saw lots of dead gannets lying among the nests of living birds.  It was shocking to see.  We also noticed the lack of great skuas. We didn’t see any dead birds on the way up to Hermaness or back down.