Fears for bonxies as avian flu reaches St Kilda seabird colonies

The Great Skua, or 'bonxie', is one of the Hebrides' most iconic seabirds but is now at risk from avian flu. NO F26 Great_Skua. Photograph: Erni Shutterstock.
The Great Skua, or 'bonxie', is one of the Hebrides' most iconic seabirds but is now at risk from avian flu. NO F26 Great_Skua. Photograph: Erni Shutterstock.

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With growing numbers of dead seabirds around Scotland’s coasts due to the H5N1 strain of avian flu, there are fears it could push some Scottish species to the brink of extinction.

The virus is widespread across Scotland, with positive cases recorded including on St Kilda and Lewis.

Great skua and gannets have been hardest hit. Sample surveys of colonies show a 64 per cent decline of great skua – known as ‘bonxies’ – on St Kilda.

Cared for by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), the St Kilda archipelago, classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has seen more than 100 dead skua so far this breeding season.

St Kilda is an isolated archipelago lying west-northwest of North Uist in the North Atlantic. Photograph: NTS. NO F26 St Kilda
St Kilda is an isolated archipelago lying west-northwest of North Uist in the North Atlantic. Photograph: NTS.
NO F26 St Kilda village NTS

Bird flu was first confirmed last summer on St Kilda, a worrying discovery given that the archipelago is an internationally important seabird breeding ground and home to almost a million gannets, shearwaters, puffins and rare Leach’s storm petrels, as well as the great skua.

Great skua migrate to St Kilda and other parts of the UK and Ireland from wintering grounds off Spain and Africa and nearly 60 per cent of the world’s breeding pairs are found in Scotland, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Scotland.

Susan Bain, NTS Western Isles manager, explained: ‘A recently completed survey by our Seabird Ranger Craig Nisbet found that more than two-thirds of our breeding birds have died due to avian flu. This high mortality rate has also been seen in other places including Unst and Fair Isle.

‘We are waiting fearfully to see if it will affect other bird species, especially birds that like to nest close together like gannets, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes, which will all be particularly vulnerable.

‘To date we have only had a handful of dead gannets but we will continue to monitor the situation as the impact of the avian flu on one of the most important seabird breeding areas in Europe could be devastating.’

NTS is also responsible for Canna in the Small Isles, which is also an important seabird site and which the charity says is being monitored closely, although no cases have yet been confirmed.

And NatureScot has this week announced a number of its island nature reserves will be closed to the public in an effort tackle the rising number of H5N1 strain avian flu cases among seabird colonies.

CAPTION:

The Great Skua, or ‘bonxie’, is one of the Hebrides’ most iconic seabirds but is now at risk from avian flu. NO F26 Great_Skua. Photograph: Erni Shutterstock.

 

Extra pic:

St Kilda is an isolated archipelago lying west-northwest of North Uist in the North Atlantic. Photograph: NTS. NO F26 St Kilda