A tiny island set in the vast South Atlantic is home to some unique and precious wildlife - yet even here it is under threat. RSPB's Globally Threatened Species Programme Manager, John Kelly sets the scene - a tale of invasive non-native mice and the impact they are having on the Tristan albatrosses and Atlantic petrels- please be warned that this post does contain an upsetting image. Once you've read the story there is an action you can take, there is a real opportunity to make a difference for Gough Island and its special wildlife - please help.

Have you heard about Gough Island, one of the most important seabird colonies in the world? If you have, you will probably know that this small island in the South Atlantic is British and part of the UK Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha.

What you may not know is how truly amazing this place is. RSPB scientists have described this island as ‘stepping back in time’. It is almost (not quite, but more on that shortly!) pristine and of vital importance for the South Atlantic ecosystem. Gough is home to significant populations of globally threatened wildlife and has long been considered one of the world’s most important seabird breeding islands with at least 23 species of seabird known to nest there, including the endangered northern rockhopper penguin. Gough Island is also a key site for seabirds that range extensively around the Atlantic Ocean. One species, the great shearwater, migrates all the way to the North American coastline and back, effectively avoiding winter all year round.

Great shearwater. Photo credit Derren Fox

This unique island is home to several species found nowhere else on earth and has some of the highest level of international site designations possible.

So what’s the problem and why do we need you to take action?

Invasive non-native species, accidentally introduced, are having a devastating impact on this island. Two in particular are of great concern: house mice and an introduced European plant called procumbent pearlwort (Sagina procumbens).

The introduced house mice are killing and eating seabird chicks, including those of the Critically Endangered Tristan albatross and Endangered Atlantic petrel. Encountering little to no resistance from the young chicks or their parents, the mice attack them over the course of several days and nights. Eventually they become weak and succumb to their injuries. Most of Gough’s seabirds, but especially those breeding in the winter, are vulnerable to mouse predation. Low breeding success means that most breeding seabird populations are declining drastically.

The mice on Gough Island have an added advantage: they have become the largest wild house mice in the world, more than 50% heavier than those from any other island. Larger mice are better able to bite into eggs and have an advantage when attacking chicks.

Atlantic petrel chick - defenseless to the impact of introduced non-native invasive mice. Photo credit Ben Dilley.

The endemic and Critically Endangered Gough bunting is also severely impacted by mouse predation. The evidence clearly shows that if mice are not eradicated, they will continue to drive endemic British birds ever closer to extinction. If we do not act, the Gough bunting could very well be the next extinction of a bird on a British Territory. 

The endemic Gough bunting. Photo credit Peter Ryan.

The procumbent pearlwort is a perennial herb native to Europe, Asia and North Africa. Classed as a lawn weed in many countries, this small innocuous-looking plant has the potential to spread across the highlands of Gough Island, forming dense mats and threatening native vegetation. Elsewhere, on Prince Edward Island in the sub-Antarctic, the pearlwort has spread so far and so fast that it is considered beyond control. We have to act now to make sure this doesn’t happen on Gough.

The RSPB has been working with our partners, Tristan da Cunha Island Council, for a number of years. We’re now planning a major intervention designed to save Gough Island. Through our research, we have shown that a Gough Island Restoration Programme is technically feasible. Successfully restoring Gough Island will prevent the deaths of over 600,000 seabird chicks a year, secure this vital nesting site, and lead to lasting seabird population and habitat recovery. 

Why are we telling you about this now?

There is a window of opportunity to secure funding from the UK Government to undertake a crucial restoration project. Responsibility for Gough Island is spread across a number of government departments and we need your help to show the Ministers responsible that there is public support for this important issue.

Please help by contacting your MP and asking them to write to their Ministerial colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport about why the UK Government urgently needs to fund this work.

Key points you might like to raise:

  • Gough Island is a World Heritage Site, and an important home to endangered British wildlife.
  • The wildlife and wild habitats of Gough are now under threat from invasive non-native species. Mice are having a devastating impact on endemic breeding birds, while the rapidly-spreading Sagina plant could completely alter the uplands ecosystem if not eradicated.
  • Tristan da Cunha, a small island community of 270 people, and the RSPB need the UK Government to support funding of this vital work and become a full partner on the project.
  • Success will save over 600,000 young seabird chicks every year and safeguard this World Heritage Site for future generations.

You can contact your MP via the Write to Them website, alternatively you can write to them at House of Commons, London SW1A 0AA.

Please send copies of your letters and any replies to Kim Matthews, Parliamentary Campaigns Officer, Gough Island Campaign, RSPB, The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2BR. Alternatively you can email us at campaigns@rspb.org.uk.

Gough Island’s threatened wildlife really needs your help; and the help of the UK government. Action is needed now if we want to avoid the extinction of wildlife found nowhere else on earth.

You can find out more about the restoration project here.