‘Stark reminder’: Scotland’s seabirds have declined by 41% in just over two decades

New statistics have shown a significant decrease in the abundance of Scotland’s breeding seabird population since the 1990s, with biodiversity minister Lorna Slater warning that the data is a “stark reminder” of the importance of safeguarding nature.

According to the Marine and Terrestrial Species Indicators: Experimental Statistic report, the average abundance for 14 species of breeding seabirds has fallen by 41% between 2019 and 1994, with the species abundance falling by 9% between 2016 and 2019 alone.

The report is still in an experimental stage so it is currently being developed and evaluated.

The report notes that whilst the data doesn’t take into account last year’s outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), it is “clear that it has had a sizeable impact on some of our seabird populations”. It is hoped that indicator updates this spring will help quantify the further effects of the disease.

The report held some positive news, with the average abundance for the 337 terrestrial species included in the report, such as birds, mammals, butterflies and moths, seeing a 14% increase between 2016 and 2019.

This figure has also stayed stable since data collection began in 1994. However, the report notes that levels are still “well below” historic populations.

The terrestrial indicator is mainly driven by moths and birds as they contribute the most species. According to the report, large-scale afforestation over past decades and recent milder winters and warmer summers are thought to have helped moth populations and hence the bird populations that rely on them for food.

Recorded terrestrial bird species abundance has also remained relatively stable since 2004, with garden bird species such as goldfinches showing positive signs of recovery. The report attributed this in part due to bird feeders and in part as a result of Scotland’s changing climate.

Slater said: “Nature is central to our survival as a species - our economy, jobs, health and wellbeing depend on it. And crucially, our biodiversity is also essential in tackling the climate crisis - this publication is another stark reminder of what we stand to lose if we do not act to protect it.”

Nick Halfhide, NatureScot’s director of nature and climate change, said: “Scotland’s wildlife, on land and at sea, has a vital role in strengthening ecological health and helping us to build resilience in the face of the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. 

“These results show the effects of climate change are already being witnessed through changes to Scotland’s species in our lifetime.”

Ruchir Shah, Director of External Affairs, Scottish Wildlife Trust welcomed the publication of the statistics and also welcomed that the report acknowledges there are biases to certain species in the statistics.

He said: "This is a welcome publication of the latest statistics to help us assess how to reverse nature loss in Scotland."

In the draft Scottish Biodiversity Strategy (SBS), which was published in December 2022, Scotland committed to halting species decline by 2030 and reverse biodiversity loss by 2045.

The indicator statistics are a key baseline to measure this progress against. A plan on how Scotland will deliver this is due this year. This is part of the UK wide goal to protect 30% of the country’s land and seas for nature by 2030, an ambition agreed by nations at COP15 and known as the ‘30 by 30’ target.