Press Release

Urgent action required to tackle devastating declines of Scotland’s seabirds

RSPB Scotland calls for emergency measures from Scottish Government

Posted 5 min read
Puffins on the cliffside.

An immediate emergency package of nature and climate actions is required from Scottish Government to safeguard the future of many Scottish seabird populations, RSPB Scotland warned today.

The results of the latest seabird census, Seabirds Count, published today revealed that almost two thirds of Scotland’s breeding seabird species have declined over twenty years. Climate change impacts, invasive predators, and lack of food are the main drivers of these devastating losses, the worst declines ever recorded in Scotland’s seabird populations, and a stark wake up call to the severity of Scotland’s nature and climate emergency.

Declines range between decreases of 11% to 79% including a decline of at least 21% for the much-loved Atlantic Puffin, of which Scotland holds 75% of the population in Britain and Ireland and which is listed as vulnerable to extinction.   

Even more concerning is that the survey work for Seabirds Count took place between 2015 and 2021, before the emergence of the current Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) – also known as bird flu – outbreak, which has swept through Scotland’s seabird colonies, causing mass deaths. Two of the three species recorded by the census as increasing in Scotland, Northern Gannet and Great Skua, are among the worst hit by HPAI, with the full impact on their numbers currently being assessed.

Scotland is home to globally important populations of seabirds and, worldwide, seabirds are the group of birds most vulnerable to extinction. The nature conservation charity says that if climate and nature action is not taken right now the long-term outcomes for many of these species in Scotland is bleak.

Keeping fossil fuels in the ground is essential. Decarbonising Scotland’s energy systems is vital for seabirds, and as part of the necessary actions RSPB Scotland is calling for an immediate halt to any new consents or licences for oil and gas extraction.

In addition to this, offshore wind farms, which are urgently needed to reduce Scotland’s carbon emissions, must only be given the go-ahead in the least damaging places for seabirds and other marine wildlife says the charity. Any consented plans must be designed to minimise harm to seabirds from collision and displacement through careful turbine placement and design; and be accompanied by measures to fully mitigate and compensate for any remaining risks to seabirds and other wildlife.

These much-needed efforts to tackle climate change must be accompanied by measures to build resilience and recovery of Scotland’s beleaguered seabird populations, with urgent action to:

  • Close Scottish waters to industrial sandeel fishing, and take wider action to protect seabird prey species
  • Introduce effective measures to eliminate and monitor seabird deaths from bycatch – the unintended trapping of them in fishing lines and nets – that is estimated to kill thousands of seabirds across Scottish waters each year
  • Deliver a rolling programme of island restoration, and effective biosecurity legacy
  • Protect the most important places for seabirds on land and at sea, through much improved protection measures, monitoring and management.
  • Develop a comprehensive national response plan to Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) outlining its major threat to wildlife
  • Deliver the long-promised Seabird Conservation Strategy with robust, ambitious and timebound actions to address significant declines in seabird populations acknowledging existing and emerging pressures.

Scottish Government’s Seabird Strategy is currently expected to be published in 2025, underpinning and coordinating how it proposes to halt seabird declines but RSPB Scotland warns that these species cannot wait until then; the scale of the losses revealed by Seabirds Count means that emergency measures must start immediately. Although much of what is needed is known, conservation measures are not being progressed and delivered at anywhere near the pace and scale needed.

Anne McCall, Director of RSPB Scotland said: “Scotland's seabird declines are catastrophic. Action is needed right now otherwise we face the very real risk of losing many of these incredible species. They are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine telling us that our marine environment is in grave trouble. Scotland is important for seabirds, not just across the UK but internationally, if we fail here then global populations are at risk. Nature can’t wait.

“We are calling for an emergency package of measures because this is an emergency. Our seabirds are at the mercy of human made impacts, we can and must do all that we can to reduce these impacts and build resilience into our remaining seabird populations so recovery can begin.”