The traditional harvesting of young seabirds in the Western Isles could be scrapped following protests by animal rights campaigners.
Gannet chicks, or guga, have been collected for generations on the island of Sula Sgeir40 miles north of Lewis, where they are considered a delicacy.
The Scottish SPCA said the annual guga hunt should be banned and Scottish Natural Heritage, which is responsible for licensing the event, said yesterday the issue will be discussed during a review of its licensing functions over the next year.
The hunting of some seabirds is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act but special licences are granted to hunt guga with a condition that the birds are humanely killed.
An SNH spokeswoman said there were around 9,000 pairs of gannets on Sula Sgeir in 1984; slightly more than 10,000 pairs in 1994 and around 9,000 in 2004.
"This was all in the context of the guga hunt, leading us to conclude that the hunt in its current form is sustainable," she said.
"We will be reviewing our licensing functions over the next 12 months during which this issue will be considered in more detail. Any recommendations arising as a result of this work will be implemented with immediate effect."
The Scottish SPCA has written to the Scottish Government and SNH requesting that plans not to monitor the hunt are reviewed if licences continue to be issued. It says that each August, 2,000 gannet chicks are beaten to death on Sula Sgier by hunters.
Scottish SPCA Chief Superintendent Mike Flynn said: "These birds are killed by being struck on the head with a heavy implement. This is an abhorrent method of slaughter which should be banned."
"The licence issued states that the birds must be killed humanely, yet there is no requirement for the hunt to be inspected and we understand SNH does not intend to do so.
"We believe it is entirely appropriate to ask for the body issuing the licence, which effectively certifies that this practice is not cruel, should ensure it is monitored and that the licence it has issued is being adhered to."
Supporters of the hunt say there is no difference between catching fish and catching seabirds, as long as it is done in a sustainable and safe way.
Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan said the guga hunt is the only remaining one of its kind in Scotland and plays a significant role in the culture of the Ness area of Lewis.
He said: "I believe that SNH's initial assessment is right, which is that the hunt in its current form is sustainable. I have written to them urging them to stick to that position and to allow the guga hunt to continue into the future."I respect the fact that there are many others who disagree with me, but I am satisfied that the hunt presents no threat to the future of the species and it is currently licensed to include a condition that the birds are quickly and humanely dispatched.
"I am confident that SNH will accept the strength of these arguments and ensure this distinctive aspect of the life of the people of Ness will continue."
TV chef Gordon Ramsay was criticised by animal rights activists six years ago when he travelled to Lewis to cook a guga for his F-Word programme.
Gannets are the UK's largest seabird. The world's largest gannet colony is on the Bass Rock, home to 150,000 of the birds.