CONCERNS are growing for Scotland’s largest bird of prey after a dead white-tailed eagle chick tested positive for avian flu.

In mid-July, 19 chicks looked set to fledge from their nests on Mull, which would have been just one short of last year’s record.

But earlier this month RSPB Scotland’s Mull officer Dave Sexton – who monitors the birds on the island – began receiving reports of suspected dead eagle chicks at numerous locations across Mull.

In recent weeks, chicks from at least four white-tailed eagle nests have died either shortly before or after fledging.

As unexpected deaths at this stage of the eagle’s development are unusual NatureScot and RSPB Scotland arranged for expert climbers to access the nest sites and swab the bodies of the dead chicks to test for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI).

In total, four dead chicks were discovered although two were too decomposed to be tested.

The most recently deceased chick has since tested positive for avian flu, while the other chick tested negative.

The National: The white-tailed eagle is Scotland's largest bird of preyThe white-tailed eagle is Scotland's largest bird of prey

However, the RSPB notes that this chick was in an advanced stage of decomposition which may have impacted on the results.

The conservation charity stated that the deaths of these chicks has had a significant impact on the breeding success of the species, with just half as many chicks expected to survive compared to 2021.

Sexton said that the deaths of the chicks had been “heartbreaking”.

“Late summer is usually an incredible time of year for Mull’s white-tailed eagles as the youngsters fledge and learn to fend for themselves; a happy time for those of us involved in monitoring them during their first few months.

“These past few weeks though have instead been heart-breaking with so many chicks dying. Visiting nest after nest where, instead of hearing young birds calling, there’s silence, and where adult birds are ignoring my presence rather than alarming, is awful.

“At the moment on Mull it appears to just be the chicks impacted but such a substantial loss of this year’s youngsters is very worrying.”

READ MORE: No cull for white-tailed eagles, Scottish minister confirms

While one year of less successful breeding will not heavily impact on the white-tailed eagle population in Scotland, it is feared that a prolonged outbreak of avian flu stretching across several summers could cause long-term damage.

White-tailed eagles were reintroduced to Scotland in 1975 after persecution by humans led to their extinction in 1918.

The first wild chick from the reintroduced population hatched in 1985 and their numbers have been growing ever since, bringing millions to the local economy.

The Scottish Government recently confirmed that it was not considering a cull of the birds after some politicians called for a targeted cull to protect lambs from predation. Avian flu has already killed tens of thousands of wild birds in the UK in the past few months.

Popular tourist destinations such as the Isle of May were temporarily closed to the public to help protect seabirds from the further spread of HPAI, which has decimated populations of gannets, great skua and terns in Scotland.

The Scottish Government has set up a taskforce led by NatureScot to co-ordinate actions to tackle the current outbreak and plan ahead for any future outbreaks.

The RSPB have also called for an immediate moratorium on the release of captive gamebirds by the shooting industry to help reduce the risk of exacerbating the crisis among wild populations.