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'Worrying' rise in dead seabirds on Scottish coast from Caithness to Berwickshire

By Gordon Calder

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THERE has been a rise in the number of seabirds washing up on the Scottish east coast from Caithness to Berwickshire. The worrying increase has put Scotland's Avian Flu Task Force on high alert.

Monitoring by NatureScot and partners, including the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), RSPB Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland, has shown that more seabirds may be succumbing to the virus. The number of dead kittiwakes, black-headed gulls, herring gulls, terns and guillemots found on the coastline from Wick to St Abbs in Berwickshire has gone up.

Testing this spring and summer has confirmed Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in Sandwich tern, common tern, kittiwake, herring gull, black-headed gull and guillemot. However, it is being stressed the overall picture is not yet clear as elsewhere testing has had mixed results.

Dead seabirds are washing up on east coast from Wick to St Abbs
Dead seabirds are washing up on east coast from Wick to St Abbs

Alastair MacGugan, a NatureScot wildlife manager, said: "Unfortunately, after a quieter period we are beginning to see an increase in the number of dead birds being reported through our surveillance network, particularly on the east coast.

"While we are thankfully not seeing the large numbers of dead birds around breeding sites that we did last year, this development is really concerning and we’re working hard with all partners in Scotland’s Avian Flu Task Force to understand what is happening and take action to make our wild bird populations more resilient."

He added: "Testing is key to unravelling just what is happening to our seabirds. We are working with Scottish Government and the Animal and Plant Health Agency to coordinate testing and when possible, to carry out post mortems on dead birds. This gives us a clearer picture on whether starvation or avian flu is the main cause of the current deaths we are seeing."

Dr Liz Humphreys, BTO Scotland principal seabird ecologist, said: "It's clear that our seabirds are still being badly affected by HPAI, despite the fact the scale of mortality initially seemed less catastrophic than last year. We need members of the public to submit all sightings of dead birds to BirdTrack and the dead wild birds service. These sightings provide an early warning of where the virus may have hit and allows us to track its movement across the UK.

"It is also vital that we continue to monitor breeding birds via the Seabird Monitoring Programme, which will allow us to assess the losses that have occurred at colonies since 2021."

Paul Walton, RSPB head of species Scotland, said: "Scotland’s breeding seabirds declined by 49 per cent between 1986 and 2019 – before the devastating impacts of bird flu began last year. The outbreak in our wild birds comes on top of huge human pressures and is clearly ongoing. We are leading a programme of seabird surveys and research to understand the impacts and generate updated population figures for affected species, as well as contributing to NatureScot’s mortality reporting system."

The deadly form of the virus originated in poultry in East Asia, and then spread to wild birds.

Members of the public are being advised not to touch sick or dead wild birds while dogs should be kept on a lead to avoid them picking up dead birds. If you find a single dead bird of prey, swan, goose, duck or gull or five or more dead wild birds of any other species at the same time, you should report them on gov.uk's 'Report dead wild birds' page. Alternatively, you can phone the GB phone helpline: 03459 33 55 77.

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