The return of Scotland's breeding seabirds is eagerly awaited by conservationists each year but this spring apprehension remains in the air. 

A highly pathogenic variant of avian flu had a "devastating impact" throughout 2022 spread across many of the country's vitally important seabird colonies.

However, Scotland’s Avian Influenza Task Force is putting in place measures that could limit the impact of the disease. 

The NatureScot-led task force has expanded its surveillance network to help the monitoring of animals as well as prepare guidelines when accessing Scotland's seabird populated islands. 

RSPB will also be leading a major programme of additional seabird monitoring, designed to detect the scale and nature of HPAI impacts on breeding seabirds.

READ MORE: Public urged to help Scotland's seabirds as avian flu fears continue

A network of rapid responders, with suitable PPE to be able to collect samples from the deceased animals, has also been expanded.

NatureScot's deputy director of nature and climate change Eileen Stuart said the measures will help take "swift" action if necessary.

“Like many, we are waiting anxiously for our breeding seabirds to return so that we can begin to assess how the populations are faring after last year’s devastating outbreak," she said. 

“Over the winter we have seen a mixed picture, with some geese faring well and other populations suffering. The work we are doing on sampling will help us better understand why this might be the case and whether immunity/resistance is building up in the different populations.

“Alongside this, a huge amount of work has been going on in the background with a wide range of partners to prepare for the return of our seabirds across Scotland."

Since late December a total of 2800 birds across 50 species were found either sick or dead through NatureScot’s early-warning surveillance network.

Barnacle geese that winter in the Solway were very hard hit by avian flu in 2021 - costing the lives of 13,000 birds.

This past winter the disease most severely affected barnacle geese that winter on Islay. A total of 1,190 deaths were recorded but population counts suggest that at least 5000 had died.

Other species that have suffered notable mortalities were the pink-footed goose, herring gull and mute swan.

Ms Stuart added: "While we cannot predict what the impact of the virus will be this summer, these preparations will ensure that we can take swift coordinated action if necessary to give our seabirds the best possible chance."

Scottish islands which are home to important seabird colonies will have more stringent biosecurity measures in place - such as disinfecting footwear and restricting access to certain areas when necessary.

READ MORE: Scotland's bird flu outbreak could grow worse in coming weeks

Scotland’s deputy chief veterinary officer Jesus Gallego explained that surveillance "is critical".

He added: “We know that Scotland’s seabird populations were affected by avian flu last year. What is not yet clear is the full extent of the impact that the virus has had.

“We will continue to work closely with NatureScot and our other partners to ensure that effective monitoring of species remains in place during the forthcoming breeding season.

“This surveillance is critical as it allows us to track both where the virus is in the country and what birds have been affected. This information is also vital in informing our efforts to mitigate avian flu in poultry populations.”

The task force is also working with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) to complete antibody sampling Svalbard barnacle geese on the Solway. This will help understand the extent of resistance being developed among bird populations.

Claire Smith, senior policy officer for RSPB, said: “RSPB Scotland staff witnessed the devastating effects of bird flu on seabirds across our nature reserves last summer. Over the winter we have seen impacts on geese, gulls and swans.

“This year we are leading a programme of seabird counts to understand the impacts and generate updated population figures for those species badly impacted.

"This will be undertaken in partnership with Marine Scotland, NatureScot, JNCC and other Seabird Monitoring Programme partners and is in part thanks to funds raised from RSPB members and supporters.

“Our staff also contribute to mortality monitoring across Scotland and we are carrying out some specific HPAI research including studying immunology in gannets. We continue to work with partners in the Scottish Avian Influenza Taskforce to improve the fortunes of wild birds and thank our members for their ongoing concern and support.”