Major Seabird Protection Project Gets Green Light

st agnesA project costing almost £1m, aimed at protecting internationally important seabird populations on Scilly, has been given the green light.

It’s hoped the scheme, which will attempt to eradicate the rat populations on St Agnes and Gugh, will safeguard and then boost numbers of Manx shearwater, storm petrel and puffins.

The local seabird population has declined by almost 25% in the past 30 years, not least because eggs and chicks have been preyed upon by rats.

Up until now, rodent control work, which the Wildlife Trust started systematically in the 1990s, has been confined to Scilly’s uninhabited islands and has left them rat-free, although work is regularly required to maintain this status.

The ambition for the new project, which involves the RSPB, Natural England and the Duchy together with the islands’ AONB, Wildlife Trust and Bird Group, is to make and keep two of Scilly’s inhabited islands rat-free over a 25-year life span.

The bulk of this scheme’s £900,000 financial backing is coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund and, because of Scilly’s Special Protected Area status, from the European Union’s LIFE budget too.

Most of the work will take place on St Agnes and Gugh between now and 2018/19 where the removal of an estimated population of some 3,000 brown rats will be undertaken, starting next November.

Jaclyn Pearson, the Wildlife Trust’s Marine Awareness Officer, will be in charge of managing the project on St Agnes.

And invitations to tender for the rat removal work have just gone out to organisations, not just in the UK but as far afield as Australia and New Zealand.

The idea of extending rat eradication to inhabited islands on Scilly emerged after 2004 when it was discovered that rats swimming across from Agnes had apparently decimated seabird populations on neighbouring Annet.

Rats have been successfully removed in recent years from two inhabited islands and seabird sites elsewhere in Britain: the private islands of Canna in the Hebrides and on Lundy. But in both places the human population is only a fraction of the size of that on St Agnes.

“Seabird populations in the UK are some of the most important in the world and we need to make sure we look after them,” said Paul St Pierre, the RSPB’s conservation officer for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. “Here on the islands we have one of only two colonies of Manx shearwater in England and the country’s only breeding colony of storm petrel.”

A feasibility study undertaken in Scilly two years ago confirmed rats as the biggest threat to breeding birds on the islands but it also indicated that eradication was only worth pursuing on Agnes and Gugh.

Waste management issues and the sheer density of building in Hugh Town is a barrier on St Mary’s while, because of their proximity to each other, trying to keep Bryher, St Martin’s and Tresco simultaneously rodent-free was deemed a challenge too far, given the ability of rats to survive in water, swim several hundred yards and readily re-infest areas.

This project seeks to redress the balance and give the birds a fighting chance, said Mr St Pierre.

The prospect of removing rats won the backing of 100% of households on St Agnes. Crops and fodder on the island are lost to rats, they carry disease and are a constant threat not just to nesting birds but also to native species such as the Scilly shrew.

Their presence on the seashore is a turn-off for tourists too, said Paul.

Resident, Richard McCarthy, told us St Agnes has, arguably, a stronger seabird heritage than any other inhabited island in Scilly. It was home to its own Bird Observatory in the 50s and 60s and also, for more than 25 years, to illustrator and wood engraver Hilda Quick whose book ‘Birds of the Isles of Scilly’ was published in 1964. Today the Turk’s Head pub continues to host a nightly bird log each October.


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