THE world’s largest colony of gannets could be the last Scottish seabird to be hit by a highly pathogenic type of bird flu, as ‘alarming’ numbers are found dead every day.
A North Berwick-based conservation charity says a Scotland-wide outbreak of bird flu has left them in a ‘watch and wait game’ as it calls for a group coordinated intervention.
Dead gannets have been found daily on the East Lothian coast since the start of this month – often in groups of ten or more that are ‘inevitably’ linked to Bass Rock. The death toll was described as “significantly higher” than would usually be expected.
On Wednesday June 7, experts from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) took a number of seabirds found at Bass Rock and the beaches around North Berwick to test them for the H5N1 subtype of avian influenza.
As the virus spreads through Scotland’s bird population, Scottish Seabird Center chief executive Susan Davies has called in a wild bird task force to help coordinate the response to the outbreak.
It comes as around 1,000 gannets and hundreds of greater skuas have been found dead or dying in Shetland as bird flu spreads through the settlements.
“As bird flu has been confirmed elsewhere in Scotland, it is suspected to be bird flu here,” Ms Davies said.
However, it has not yet been officially confirmed that the Bass Rock colony has been affected by the virus.
And if it’s not the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu that’s causing the deaths, it’s “certainly something else” spreading among the birds, Ms Davies said.
She added: “It’s not just the dead birds. We also see birds now on the shore that are terribly sick. Similarly, at Bass Rock we also have a number of sick birds.
“When you have a large number of colonial birds, the fear is that they will spread through the population quite quickly.
“For us, at the moment, we cannot predict what kind of death it would be.
“It’s a watch-and-wait game that we’re in, and we’ll try to undertake another type of monitoring and investigation effort so that we can try to determine what the impact is.”
READ MORE: Bonxies found dead on Shetland Island as bird flu spreads
Some carcasses are expected to wash ashore, as more than 150,000 gannets breed on Bass Rock each year, but the number of birds found dead has been staggeringly high.
Speaking from personal observations, Ms Davies said: ‘If you take East Beach you might have one of the two birds for a week or a fortnight, but what we see every day are dozens of birds and in some areas along the coast even in numbers greater than that.
“That’s what is alarming because it happens every day.”
The Scottish Seabird Center is set to set up its direct monitoring of some sample plots in the area and is discussing the possibility of a drone survey with other organisations.
While protection zones have been put in place around a number of Scottish poultry farms, protecting Scotland’s wild bird population is less straightforward.
However, the chief executive argued that a response group led by the government or one of the state agencies could help coordinate investigative work, communications and coordinate investigative work.
“This would identify what is the best approach to monitor investigations and monitor impact and mortality levels,” Ms Davies said.
“It would just create a more formal communication network between people who oversee or manage seabird colonies.”
A NatureScot spokesperson said a task force will review the results of the Scotland-wide survey in mid-July.
A spokesperson added: “NatureScot continues to work closely with the Scottish Government and partners to monitor the outbreak of avian flu.
“We will be carrying out monitoring on our NNRs and additional monitoring of bonxie colonies in the Northern Isles and Outer Hebrides this summer.
“We encourage other environmental organizations to do the same and salute the work they have undertaken so far.
The Scottish Seabird Center said their birding trips to Bass Rock had not been affected by the rising gannet death toll.
People who find a dead bird are urged not to touch the animal and report it to Defra on 03459 335577, or contact the SSPCA if they find it sick or injured.