Mink project extended

A project that is resorting native wildlife and biodiversity and employs 14 people has been extended for a further three years.

The Hebridean Mink Project (HMP) will continue with an emphasis on monitoring until March 2014. This extension has been assisted by a contribution of £36,000 from Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CNES).

“This extra funding from the Comhairle was vital in securing an extension to the project. The Comhairle’s continuing support of the project in difficult financial times is very much appreciated,” Iain Macleod, the project manager, confirmed.

Councillor Archie Campbell, chair of the Sustainable Development Committee, said: “As the Comhairle has been a partner since the project started and given its success to date, we are keen to see the project meet its aims. We have therefore agreed to continue supporting the project during this final phase.”

The HMP is one of the largest and most complex of its kind anywhere in the world. It uses thousands of traps to catch mink, which are then euthanised. It is now becoming evident that the population of mink has reduced to the extent that individuals are having difficulty finding a mate. It is hoped the population will not recover in the face of continued intensive trapping.

The reduction in the population now means that the project strategy will change from trapping to monitoring of the area, making use of rafts and tunnels with clay tracking plates. This will allow the targeting of individual animals wherever they are found.

Mink are opportunist predators which catch and eat almost anything and pose a threat to the islands’ native wildlife, particularly birds like tern, golden plover, and red/black throated divers.

Almost 1530 mink have been caught so far. Areas like the Outer Hebrides rely on wildlife tourism which is reckoned to be worth around £2.5m a year to the local economy. And the mink project helps underpin the economy by creating and retaining 14 full-time trapping jobs.

Monitoring work by RSPB Scotland on local populations of Arctic tern – which fly thousands of miles to migrate to the Western Isles where they raise young – has found some evidence that colonies have increased from six to 26 around Lewis and Harris.

Martin Scott, the local RSPB officer stated: “I found 26 colonies of varying size around Lewis and Harris and I have been informed that terns bred again on some of the islands in the sound of Harris. Until recently, we had been down to just five or six colonies. The evidence shows that this species is showing a positive response to mink removal.

“We think that the terns have gained confidence to return to nest in localities that historically they have used before. The terns act as a barometer to gauge the trends of other bird species and we have anecdotally noted red throated diver and golden plover, which have been recorded in greater numbers this year.”

However, wild bird productivity is continuing to suffer, probably as a result of decreased food supply, and it is clear that the islands’ native birds continue to face real difficulties.

“We have reduced the population of mink to very low levels and emphasis will now be placed on monitoring techniques to assess if mink remain in an area. If their presence is confirmed, trapping will take place to remove the animals,” Iain Macleod, the project manager, confirmed.

“This is the final push and we need the help of the community and local volunteers to make it succeed. We are seeking volunteers to check clay footprint tracking tunnels on a fortnightly basis throughout the Outer Hebrides. Anyone interested should contact 01851 705258.

Mr Macleod confirmed anecdotal information showed other species which appear to have been helped including red and black throated divers; many shore nesting waders, and also golden plover and duck species including teal and eider. He added: “The work here benefits the indigenous wildlife of the islands and if we keep that vital asset it will in turn encourage tourists to continue visiting our islands in order to view and study these species.”