Bringing seabirds back to Shiant Isles

In this article RSPB Scotland’s Charlie Main explains how conservation bodies and the landowner are making the Shiants a home for wildlife .

Some years ago RSPB Scotland identified the Shiant Islands as providing an ideal opportunity for improving the fortunes of Scotland’s seabirds.

The islands are home to thousands of seabirds and are one of the most important sites in Scotland for birds such as puffins and guillemots.

Located in the Minch, about four miles off the east coast of Lewis, the islands have a long and fascinating history recently described by Adam Nicolson in his acclaimed book ‘Sea Room’.

Adam’s son, Tom, is the third generation of his family to act as custodian of the islands.

However, despite the presence of large numbers of birds, all is not as well as it could be.

In the past, black rats were accidentally introduced to the islands and it was felt that they were having a significant and negative impact on the breeding birds.

The absence of Manx shearwaters and storm petrels, both of which raise their families in burrows, was put down to the presence of the rats.

RSPB identified the need to assess the possibility of eradicating black rats and contracted Wildlife Management International Limited (WMIL) to do a feasibility study and prepare an Operational Plan to carry out the job.

WMIL was contracted in 2015 to complete the eradication. A steering group made up of RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and landowner Tom Nicolson has been set up to take the project forward: the removal of the rats is planned for October 2015 to March 2016.

An amazing place

The Shiants are amazing. It takes about an hour to get there by boat from Stornoway depending on sea conditions, which can be choppy as any islander knows. But the trip is well worth it.

There are three main islands: Eilean an Tighe and Garbh Eilean – which are connected by a shingle bar at most states of the tide, and Eilean Mhuire, which lies about half a mile from the other two.

The islands are uninhabited, although there is a bothy on Eilean an Tighe that is used by the shepherds, the Nicolsons and visitors.

Off the western coast of Garbh Eilean, there is a series of rugged, offshore stacks called the Galtachan. It is a dramatic and rugged environment.

The Shiant Isles are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for the seabird colonies and geological features and a Special Protected Area (SPA) for the internationally important concentrations of breeding seabird species.

Recent seabird surveys show the Shiants are home to large numbers of seabirds particularly puffins, shags, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots and fulmars.

The islands also provide a home for eagles. White-tailed eagles historically bred on the islands, and have recently returned, breeding on Garbh Eilean in 2014, and a young pair of golden eagles is currently establishing a territory.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Shiants are also an important wintering site for the Greenland barnacle goose – these birds are another one of the species that make up the designated features of the SPA.

The project

The objective of the project is two-fold. First to remove the rats so that all the bird species in the protected area benefit, and, secondly, to encourage the return of missing seabird species such as Manx shearwaters and storm petrels which we believe could breed successfully once the rats have gone.How will it be done?

In order to minimise any adverse impacts on the environment and non-target species the removal of the rats will be achieved using baits with a cereal-based wax block rodenticide.

This is a tried and trusted process which has been used successfully in a number of other islands where rats had been introduced.

We believe the process will take about 180 days but have built in a contingency for a second year if any rats are detected afterwards.

Bait stations will be placed across all the islands, including the offshore stacks. Ropes will be used to safely access steep, grassy ledges, many of which end in cliff drops.

Once the rats have all been removed we will seek to attract the Manx shearwaters and storm petrels by playing taped recordings of their song.

This, hopefully, will cause them to investigate the islands as possible breeding sites.

There is no immediate guarantee of success but it is a technique that has worked on other island groups.

The establishment of new breeding colonies of these two species would be a major conservation success.

Community involvement

We have been delighted by the very positive response from the local community.

The first 400 bait stations were made by volunteers on Harris at the Volunteer Centre in Tarbert in August.

The bait stations are made from 10 cm diameter drain coil that can be pegged to the ground and visually inspected and topped up manually with bait through a hatch cut in the top.

We are very keen to discuss other opportunities for folk to get involved with the project.

If you would be interested in learning more or getting involved, please drop me a line at: charlie.main@rspb.org.uk