Cash flies into Western Isles courtesy of birds and wildlife, but hedgehogs are a problem

Internationally important numbers of breeding wader birds help support the rural economy of the Outer Hebrides, the board of Scottish Natural Heritage has recognised.

Tourism is reckoned to be worth around £53million a year locally, with plans to grow it to £63million over the next five years. Local wildlife is recognised as one of the key assets for the industry.

The Uists have nesting waders in the form of dunlin, ringed plover, redshank, snipe, lapwing and oystercatcher.

But they have been in decline since the mid-1980s partly due to predation by non-native hedgehogs, introduced in the 1970s.

Efforts to stem the decline have been in progress since 2004. Since 2007 the translocation of hedgehogs trapped by Uist Wader Research (UWR) has been undertaken by Uist Hedgehog Rescue (UHR), a coalition of animal welfare and wildlife organisations that supports non-lethal control.

And proposals to mount a fresh drive to help some of Europe’s most important numbers of wader birds has been backed by community leaders in the Outer Hebrides.

Research in 2012–2014 showed that hedgehogs were predating the eggs (and occasionally small chicks) of these birds and that this was having a major impact on hatching success on waders in South Uist.

A range of options were presented to the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) Board including the removal of the non-native hedgehogs.

“Species such as internationally important, lapwing, dunlin, ringed plover, redshank and snipe are among those most affected. Action is proposed to counter the worrying decline in key wader species in the Uists,” Ian Ross, the SNH chairman, confirmed.

“Managing invasive non-native species is a high priority in the islands and is recognised in the Outer Hebrides Community Planning Partnership’s Single Outcome Agreement (SOA). This would represent not only an investment in the natural heritage, but also the character, culture and economic future of the islands.

“The Board was asked for its support in principle to develop an EU LIFE funding bid with a view to starting removal work in 2017 if this is successful. We will now develop a detailed project proposal aimed at removal of the introduced hedgehogs.

“We and our partners are committed to removal of the hedgehogs which are trapped safely and humanely, and removed from the Uists to the mainland.”

Nature-based tourism is recognised in the Tourism Outer Hebrides Strategy 2020 – with the internationally important wader populations one of the key attractions for visitors. There is a risk that less visitors will come if there are no wader birds to see.

The spectacle of nesting waders on the machairs takes place in the spring and is an important attraction early in the tourist season. If wader populations continue to decline, there is a risk that the wider tourism product in the Outer Hebrides will be damaged leading to an adverse impact on the local economy.