THE world’s largest colony of Northern gannets could be the latest Scottish seabirds to be hit by a highly pathogenic type of bird flu as an “alarming” number are being found dead each day.

A conservation charity based in North Berwick has said a Scotland-wide outbreak of avian influenza has left them in a “watch and wait game” as it urged for a coordinated response group.

Dead gannets have been found daily on the East Lothian coast since the start of this month – often in groups of ten or more which are “inevitably” linked to Bass Rock. The number of deaths have been described as “significantly higher” than what would usually be expected.

On Wednesday, June 7, experts from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) took a number of the seabirds found on Bass Rock and beaches around North Berwick to test them for H5N1 subtype of avian influenza.

As the virus spreads through Scotland’s bird population, the chief executive of the Scottish Seabird Centre, Susan Davies, called for a wild bird response group to help coordinate the response to the outbreak.

It comes as around 1000 gannets and hundreds of great skuas have been found dead or dying in Shetland as avian influenza spreads through colonies.

“Given that avian flu has been confirmed elsewhere in Scotland, the suspicion is that it is avian flu here,” Ms Davies said.

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However, it has yet to be officially confirmed that the Bass Rock colony has been impacted by the virus.

And if it is not the highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza leading to the deaths, it is “definitely something else” spreading among the birds, Ms Davies said.

She added: “It is not just the dead birds. We are also seeing birds now on the shore which are awfully sick. Similarly, on Bass Rock we have got a number of birds sick there as well.

“When you’ve got large numbers of colonial birds then the fear is that it will spread quite rapidly through the population.

“For us, at the moment, we cannot predict what kind of fatality that would be.

“It is a watch and wait game that we are in, and we will be trying to undertake some other type of surveillance and survey effort so that we can try to work out what the impact is.”

READ MORE: Bonxies found dead on Shetland island as bird flu 'spreads'

Some carcasses are expected to wash onshore as over 150,000 Northern gannets breeding on Bass Rock each year, however the numbers found of dead birds found have been staggeringly high.

Speaking from personal observations, Ms Davies said: “If you take the East Beach, you might get one of two birds over a week or a fortnight, but what we are seeing everyday are tens of birds and in some areas along the coastline even in greater numbers than that.

“That’s what’s alarming because it is happening every day.”

The Scottish Seabird Centre is set to up its direct monitoring of some sample plots in the area and are discussing the possibility of a drone survey with some other organisations.

While protection zones have been put in place around a number of Scottish poultry premises, 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 public bodies could help coordinate survey work, communications and coordinate survey work.

“It would identify what the best approach is for monitoring for surveying and monitoring the impact and the levels of mortality,” Ms Davies said.

“It would just create a more formal network of communication between those people who are overseeing or managing seabird colonies.”

A NatureScot spokesperson said a working group will review Scotland-wide survey results in mid-July.

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 A spokesperson added: “NatureScot continues to work closely with Scottish Government and partners to monitor the avian flu outbreak.

“We will be carrying out surveillance on our NNRs and additional monitoring of bonxie colonies in the Northern Isles and Outer Hebrides this summer.

" We are encouraging other environmental organisations to do the same and welcome the work they have undertaken this far."

The Scottish Seabird Centre said their bird-watching trips to Bass Rock have not been affected by the rise in gannet deaths.

People who find a dead bird are being urged to not touch the animal and to instead report them to Defra on 03459 335577, or to contact SSPCA if they find them sick or injured.