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.


10 Responses to Major Seabird Protection Project Gets Green Light

  1. John Headon January 21, 2013 at 11:26 am

    Well said, Will Scott and Colin Taylor – measured responses based on research and EXPERIENCE (i.e. not just theoretical book learning) instead of knee-jerk responses based on prejudice in some cases.

    Dora – evidence again shows you are wrong about tagging. Look, for example at the dozen or more Cuckoos that have had radio transmitters fitted over the last 3 years. 5 of them are still successfully wintering in the Congo – a survival rate higher than average, not lower!

  2. Colin Taylor January 16, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    I have worked since 1988 on several of these Seabird colony rehab projects on islands around the world including Lundy. All have been successes for both the wildlife & human inhabitants. I have seen the benefit to endemic wildlife following the removal of what is shown to be the most important causes of their declines. Over a period of time rats can devastate seabird colonies. They suppress the breeding rates above that which the birds have evolved to cope with. Manx Shearwaters are long lived birds living up to 50 years. With colonies under pressure from introduced predators these birds are becoming increasingly old & young birds are replacing them at potentially unsustainable rates. The UK has around 90% of the worlds population.

    A worldwide Seabird Eradication Project started 100’s of years ago when human activity unwittingly introduced highly adaptable, fast breeding omnivores like rats to islands where they were able to thrive at the expense of the endemic wildlife. Doing nothing will neither conserve nor preserve the status of such threatened wildlife. Doing nothing will lead to change. The trend will be to less biodiversity. This project will aim to reverse that for St Agnes & Gugh & by proximity Annett. Its an exciting project & the successful bidders will be using techniques & baits that minimize the risk to non target species. Thriving Shearwater Colonies are a marvelous sight & sound and as such will be another jewel in Scilly’s crown.

  3. Will Scott January 16, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Great article. An interesting debate.
    Not about helicopters, but wildlife and how they make us feel really good (even if you don’t appreciate them conciously, its an evolutiuonary thing) and are the reason for much of the islands tourism.
    Firstly this money is designated SOLELY for the rehabilitation of seabird colonies, and has been applied to various sites globally.
    Secondly rats are a much larger threat to seabirds than Gulls as eggs (rats preferred target) can’t run away like chicks. And of course Puffin, Storm Petrel and Manx Shearwater chicks fledge at night to avoid predation fro diurnal predators such as gulls.
    The odd instance of predation on these species is natural, but mans development has penned them in to smaller and smaller breeding areas where concentrations of predators occure for similar reasons, or due to the proximity to man. So it is our duty to help them, and as I eluded previously they bring both pleasure and money into our lives.
    Rats are a human problem, they thrive on our litter (as do gulls) so we again have an obligation to sort our own house out so that the neighbours can survive. The ones that were here long before us.
    Getting rid of cats would be great, but they are a major predator of rats/rabbits etc that can and do cause lasting harm to the islands.
    The protection of gulls and grey seals does exist, for good reason. As only relatively small numbers live and breed around Scilly and have little effect on fish stocks, as had been demonstrated in many locations around the UK which holds the majority of the global Grey Seal population. This unfortunately is more of an issue with climate (impacting sea temperatures) and altering currents. So lets remove the negatives on land and see how these birds fair, at least then we can tell our childern and grand-children we tried. And of course a healthy ecosystem with all components in their correct relative abundances (which currently they are not) is vital from everything from fishing to farming, and its effects will reach nationally if not globally such is the ‘connectivity’ involved.
    It’s funny how widlife and the natural environment is often devalued when in reality its the only priceless commodity we have.

  4. local January 15, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    with no helicopter service into tresco i wonder if the terns will return in numbers to breed on skirt island and along the south side of tresco.?
    over fishing throughout the northern atlantic reducing sand eel stocks may have a bigger impact on seabird numbers than rats ?

    • Adam Morton,St.Martins January 16, 2013 at 1:22 pm

      Poisoning the rats will poison the gulls who will eat them. The black backs kill more chicks than the rats. Since interference from environmentalists there are few discards of food for gulls causing them to prey on smaller birds. I am not sure what is stopping the sand eel & mackerel coming into Scilly but it has only worsened since restrictions were imposed. Beach breeding birds are more likely put off by people than helicopters. Observe gulls and cattle at lands end who don’t even flinch when a plane fly’s over! Every action has consequences, some foreseeable and some harder to spot. Most of the wildlife about Scilly has adapted and evolved in conjunction with human activity.
      Until recently Black backs, Seals & shags were shot to conserve fish stocks & poultry. Now that they are protected by those who know better, they proliferate and overrun the stocks & species that benefitted from protection. It just depends on what you want! One thing’s for sure the people who devote their lives to paper education on environmental stuff have certainly started making it pay!

  5. Nobby Nobbs January 15, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    I wonder how many rat live under the Moreswell alp?

  6. Dora January 15, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    ‘The local sea bird population has declined by almost 25% in the past 30 years because of the interference from wildlife organisations,tagging is effecting their breeding and ability to source food.

  7. Dave January 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Get rid of the cats, that’ll save the wildlife and anyway aren’t rats part of the eco?

  8. Former Very Regular Visitor January 15, 2013 at 12:33 pm

    Edward, you clearly did’nt read the article as you say :
    ‘Wildlife, its already here’
    But for how much longer ?
    The article states : ‘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’
    I do agree with you re the quays and playground though !

  9. Edward January 15, 2013 at 10:46 am

    If only the money from LAG, AONB, WLT, lottery,EU, etc for all these daft ideas could be pooled we would probably have enough for a helicopter service.
    Building playgrounds whats wrong with the beach!
    off island quays nobody asked for them!
    Wild life, its already here!
    LAG is only being taken up because its being offered its all such a waste of money that could be better spent! its what we havant got that makes scilly specaul