Birds flock back to mink-free Hebrides

Arctic tern (Sterna paradisadea) feeding a sandeel to its newly fledged chick. All images courtesy of Scottish Natural Heritage
Arctic tern (Sterna paradisadea) feeding a sandeel to its newly fledged chick. All images courtesy of Scottish Natural Heritage

Terns, waders, divers and ducks are ‘flocking back’ to their native Outer Hebrides, following the success of a complex and challenging 17-year programme to eradicate the American mink and its devastating effect on native wildlife.

Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Roseanna Cunningham said: “The successful removal of non-native mink from the Hebrides is a significant achievement, and is the result of the sustained commitment and effort of all the staff involved.

Young Arctic Tern �Lorne Gill/SNH

Young Arctic Tern �Lorne Gill/SNH

“I am delighted that we are already seeing positive results, bringing the return of the seabirds and wading birds which the islands are world-famous for. This will provide a real boost for nature tourism in the Hebrides.”

HEBRIDES’ NATURE RETURNING TO BALANCE

Mike Cantlay, Chair of Scottish Natural heritage said: “We are delighted that all the hard work has been successful for the nature of the Hebrides. Mink – an invasive non-native species - prey on ground nesting birds and fish.

“With major funding from the EU Life programme, at the project’s height a team of just 12 core Scottish Natural Heritage staff worked as teams of trappers to remove mink, and help bring back native birds to one of the remotest, wildest landscapes anywhere in Scotland.”

Red-throated diver Gavia stellata, adult and young chick. �Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

Red-throated diver Gavia stellata, adult and young chick. �Mark Hamblin/2020VISION

PROJECT FACED SIGNIFCANT CHALLENGE

At 3,050km2 - an area twice the size of Fife - the remote Hebridean location meant significant challenges for the project to overcome.

Hundreds of islands contribute to a coastline of approximately 2,500km -15% of Scotland’s total.

Over 7,500 freshwater lochs - around 24% of Scotland’s total – helped invasive mink grow to dense populations rarely reached in their native North America.

Lapwing.'�Lorne Gill

Lapwing.'�Lorne Gill

POSITIVE EFFECT ON WILDLIFE AND ECONOMY

Scottish Natural Heritage Area Manager for Argyll and the Outer Hebrides, David Maclennan said: “Invasive species are one of the greatest threats to the beauty and variety of our nature.

“But the Hebridean Mink Project shows that we can take on invasive species – and win. It is fantastic to start welcoming back our native species. A range of factors are likely to be at play, but local people are telling us that a mink free Outer Hebrides is having a hugely positive effect on wildlife and the economy.”

Murray Macleod, an operator with tourist boat provider SeaTrek, said: “Boat operators are already starting to see the results of the mink project.

American mink.'�David Whitaker.

American mink.'�David Whitaker.

“We have changed our tourist routes this year, because in places where there used to be no bird populations to view; now we are seeing colonies of terns with chicks.

“It’s been an incredible boost to local tourism – and of course you can’t top the delight on visitors’ faces when they see our native birds thriving.”

2,198 MINK CAUGHT

The introduction of mink in Scotland has been directly connected to the fur farming industry established in the 1950s.

In the Outer Hebrides fur farms on the Isle of Lewis went out of business in the 1960’s and feral populations quickly became established.

Small scale control operations carried out by sporting estates and an attempt by SNH to prevent the mink population spreading south had limited effect.

By 1999 breeding populations of mink were established on North Uist and Benbecula.

To date, 2,198 mink have been caught, with only two non-breeding females and associated males caught in Lewis and Harris in the last 18 months.