The non-native black rats which most likely arrived on the Shiant Islands from shipwrecks will be targeted as part of a project which has been awarded almost £450,000 of European Funding.
A project aims to help safeguard Scotland’s threatened seabird colonies. Work will focus on the remote Shiant islands, which are home to more than 150,000 seabirds that gather there to breed each year.
The island group, located in the Minch in the Outer Hebrides, is one of the most important seabird breeding sites in Europe. It supports 10% of the UK’s puffin population and 7% of the UK’s razorbills, and has been designated a Special Protection Area (SPA) for Wild Birds.
Two other species of seabirds, the Manx shearwater and European storm petrel, are now restricted to a small number of island locations on the west coast of Scotland. They continue to be threatened by factors such as climate change, pollution and a shortage of breeding sites.
Neither species is resident on the Shiants, but there is an abundance of suitable habitat, and some evidence that shearwaters once bred there.
The Shiant Seabird Recovery Project aims to create conditions which will attract them to the islands to breed alongside the resident puffins and razorbills. The project will use recordings of calls to attract the birds and will carry out active management to make sure the birds have the best opportunity to settle and breed.
A significant challenge will be removing the non-native black rat that most likely came ashore from shipwrecks in around 1900. The exact impact of these non-natives on the Shiants is not fully known. However, studies have shown that they will eat seabird eggs and young chicks and their removal from islands has demonstrable benefits for breeding seabird populations.
The Shiant Seabird Recovery Project is a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Nicolson family, who have been the custodians of the Shiants for three generations. The experience will be used to prepare a biosecurity plan to protect other islands from non-native predators.
Adam Nicolson said: “This is a great opportunity to return the Shiants to what they should be: even more full of life, with more bird species and more resilient in the face of future threats.
“We hope that as a result of this very exciting project, generations of people will come to know the islands as they should principally be known – that is as one of the greatest of all hubs of Atlantic seabird life.”
George Campbell, RSPB Regional Director for North Scotland, said: “Scotland’s globally important seabirds are suffering chronic declines and we have a responsibility to do everything we can to reverse these trends.
“Eliminating the invasive rats on the Shiant Isles will ensure safe breeding sites for struggling seabirds and allow the recovery and restoration of the island’s existing colonies, as well as encourage Manx shearwaters and storm petrels to breed there.
“We are hugely grateful to the European Commission, SNH and our supporters who will allow us to make these islands a seabird haven once more and contribute to shoring up our threatened seabird populations.”
Andy Douse, SNH’s Shiant Seabird Recovery Project ornithologist, said: “This is an exciting project that will address the problems facing one of Scotland’s finest concentrations of breeding seabirds. It will also provide us with a better understanding of rat control methods that can be used more widely and it will promote better biosecurity for islands that remain or have been cleared of invasive rats.”
Following substantial research and consultation with specialists, an operational plan is being developed to eradicate the rats in the safest and most effective way, with the lowest risk of impacting native species, by laying poison in bait stations around the islands.
The project will cost around £900,000, with European Commission funding of £446,371 now secured under the LIFE+ programme, the European Union’s environment fund. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is providing £200,000 and the remainder will be raised from donations.