Seabird conservationists have been left feeling “powerless” as bird flu was officially confirmed in the world’s largest Northern gannet colony on Bass Rock.

Highly pathogenic avian influenza has been spreading across Scotland, significantly impacting the great skua population on Shetland and has now been confirmed on the East coast of Scotland.

The Scottish Seabird Centre shared images of Bass Rock from April 2021 and June 2022 showing the extent of the impact of the virus on the massive bird population.

HeraldScotland: Image: Scottish Seabird CentreImage: Scottish Seabird Centre

The island off the coast of North Berwick, where the conservation charity is based, is the home to more than 150,000 breeding gannets each year and is often described as a “wildlife spectacle”.

However, in recent weeks the number of dead birds washing up on the East Lothian shore has increased significantly – with experts now confirming the infection has been found in carcasses that were sampled.

The centre has now suspended all of its landing trips to Bass Rock to avoid causing disturbance to the colony and the minimise risks of spreading the disease. However, other wildlife trips are set to continue.

Susan Davies, chief executive of the charity, said: “We feel powerless. We can only watch and monitor the passage of the disease as it spreads through the colony.

“We need resources to undertake survey work – including by drone – in the coming weeks.

“This will enable us to get a better handle on the scale of impact and to better monitor the recovery of the colony in years to come.”

The full impact of the virus “may not be known for some time”.

Ms Davies added: “These birds are from the world’s largest northern gannet colony on the Bass Rock in East Lothian which is widely recognised as an amazing wildlife spectacle.

“Each day the story unfolds further on the island.

“Patches within the colony, which would have been packed tightly with noisy and boisterous gannets sharing the responsibility of protecting their precious eggs and feeding young chicks (gugas), are becoming more sparsely occupied as each day passes.”

Scots have been urged by officials to avoid touching any dead birds and to call Defra on 03459 335577.

The chief executive warned that wild bird colonies across the country are at risk as she urged for coordinated action in Scotland  

She said: “This is not just about avian flu on the Bass Rock it is about the health and protection of seabird colonies across Scotland, which face multiple pressures not least from climate change, invasive species, pollution and over-fishing.

“The need for a Seabird Conservation Strategy and action plan for Scotland has never been more needed, and we urge Scottish Government to make rapid progress with this.”