Key marine sites must be protected immediately in a bid to stop iconic seabirds vanishing from Scotland, according to a leading conservation charity.
Scotland is home to 24 internationally important seabird species. But the latest official figures show at least nine have been in steep decline for the past 18 years.
Now a new report from RSPB Scotland is calling for the Scottish Government to set out seven new Special Protection Areas (SPAs) to safeguard food supplies for threatened birds and reduce the impacts of offshore wind farms.
As the seas are increasingly being utilised for renewable energy developments, conservationists say guidance on sensitive areas is urgently needed to address a “fundamental lack of protection” for species such as the puffin and great skua.
The RSPB is also warning that the Scottish and UK governments risk failing to meet obligations under Scottish and European laws if “urgent action” is not taken to encourage their survival.
Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland, said: “Scotland has a fantastic opportunity to show the world that we value our wildlife and natural environment.
“Unfortunately, this is not the case when it comes to our iconic seabirds, species for which Scotland in particular has a special responsibility to protect.”
He said the seven areas are just “a first step” in creating a full network needed to satisfy the requirements of EU and Scottish legislation.
“With numerous proposed wind farm developments ‘queuing up’ in the areas that overlap key feeding sites for birds, we cannot wait any longer,” he added.
The most dramatic declines have hit the arctic skua, arctic tern and black-legged kittiwake, which have seen numbers plummet by as much as 80 per cent in recent years. Experts fear the arctic skua may disappear from the UK within a decade.
Other species of concern include the northern gannet, European shag, common guillemot and European storm petrel.
Evidence shows changes in oceanography are affecting the food “web”, causing a scarcity of prey that impacts on breeding success.
But the survival of vulnerable populations can also be threatened by badly sited marine renewable schemes and invasive alien species, according to the report.