There are calls for the UK government to ban the release of millions of game birds into the countryside due to the risk they may accelerate the spread of avian flu among wild populations.

Each year over 55 million domestically-reared birds are released into the UK countryside to be shot for sport.

However, the RSPB said that to do so this year would risk a further “catastrophic spread” of avian influenza, which has already killed thousands of wild birds.

Seabirds in Scotland have been heavily impacted by the disease, with internationally important populations of gannet and great skua particularly hard hit.

The conservation charity said that due to the scale of the current outbreak and the ongoing pressures on wildlife from climate change, it was necessary to adopt a precautionary approach to limiting the spread of the virus.The National: The British Association of Shooting and Conservation said the RSPB's were not backed by the scienceThe British Association of Shooting and Conservation said the RSPB's were not backed by the science

RSPB’s Director of Policy Jeff Knott said: “In recent months we have witnessed an unfolding catastrophe taking place on our wild birds.

“It has been emotionally tough to witness, but we are not helpless and there are many positive actions that we can take to help them weather this storm and reduce the risk of exacerbating this crisis.

“This disease originated in poultry in Asia before passing into wild birds. It is another human pressure on beleaguered wildlife across the world and in the UK specifically.

“We must all now take responsibility and do everything we can to limit the impact in the immediate term.”

Pheasants have tested positive for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) in the past, although the spread from captive-reared birds to wild birds has not yet been confirmed scientifically.

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But according to the UK government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, the transmission between pheasants and wild birds is certainly possible. Robbie Marsland, Director of the League Against Cruel Sports Scotland, said that a lack of regulation was harming native birds.

He said: “We fully support the RSPB's calls to ban game bird release in light of the avian flu crisis.

“Pheasants, in particular, are released all over the countryside in Scotland in their thousands ahead of the shooting season for no reason other than to provide entertainment for a small minority wishing to shoot wildlife for pleasure.

“This is surely not justification to risk increasing the devastating impacts of avian flu on wild birds.

"The Scottish Government is currently considering licensing grouse moors but lack of regulation in the shooting industry is something that goes beyond just grouse moors.

“A ban on releasing game birds to limit the spread of avian flu is a sensible short term measure and we would hope land managers and gamekeepers, as the self-titled 'nurses and doctors' of the countryside will also welcome and support these steps."

But Glynn Evans, the head of game and gundogs for the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC), accused the RSPB of “political grandstanding”.

Speaking to The Guardian he said: “The RSPB has failed to present a single piece of evidence to support their call and has chosen to ignore the substantial role shooting plays in the countryside.

“This year’s outbreak of avian influenza is of serious concern and BASC and other representatives of the shooting sector have been working closely with Defra, the devolved administrations and a wide range of stakeholders to ensure all necessary actions to reduce the transmission of avian flu are taken.”