The RSPB has a long history of working in the UK Overseas Territories including, of course, those in the Caribbean which have been so badly hit by Hurricane Irma (about which my colleague Elizabeth Radford has written here). In that time, we have undertaken some pretty big projects. And today, I want to tell you about another one: the Gough Island Restoration programme. Gough is part of the UK Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha in the south Atlantic (if you are not sure where is, have a look here).
Gough Island is a special place: it is a World Heritage Site and home to more than eight million birds from at least 23 different species, including the northern rockhopper penguin and the Critically Endangered Tristan albatross.
Yet, these seabirds are in trouble.
Populations have plummeted because they are being eaten by mice which were accidentally introduced to Gough by sailors in the nineteenth century. As a result, more than one million chicks are killed by mice every year. And these are no ordinary mice - they have evolved to become two or three times larger than normal by exploiting all the food sources on the island.
So, unless we do something about these giant albatross-eating mice, two species listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN, Tristan albatross and Gough bunting, will head towards extinction.
That is why I am delighted to announce that we intend to mount an operation to eradicate the mice from Gough island.
The beautiful Tristan albatross courtship display on Gough Island. This year was the highest breeding success rate for this species in a long time. Still not sufficient to prevent extinction of the species but a much needed small boost to the number of birds in the wild. (Photo credit: Derren Fox)
We have been working hard with our partners on Tristan da Cunha, the Percy Fitz Patrick Institute, BirdLife South Africa and the South African Department of Environmental Affairs to plan this operation and I have been incredibly impressed by the work of the team, led by my colleagues Clare Stringer and John Kelly, that has helped us get into this position today.
The action of removing mice from Gough will help the UK meet its international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the World Heritage Convention to protect this site and its unique threatened species. It is the sort of ambition that should be reflected in the UK Government's forthcoming 25 year environment plan. In the context of debates about natural capital (about which I wrote earlier this week), this is one of those projects that cost-benefit equations seem irrelevant - stopping extinction is just the right thing to do.
And that's why we've worked hard to find the resources needed for the operational phase. While we still have a funding shortfall, thanks to generous financial support from the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other sources, we are now sufficiently confident to plan the mouse eradication operation to start in 2019.
The operation will require some hard work and a bit of luck to get everything ready for our operational window during that year. But the preparations can now intensify. Indeed, this week three of RSPB's newest recruits (Fabrice le Bouard, Jaimie Cleeland and Kate Lawrence) departed Cape Town on board the S.A. Agulhas II and are headed for Gough, where they will live and work for the next 13 months. Their objective is to establish a monitoring baseline against which we judge the success of our proposed mouse eradication project. I expect they will have a fabulous time but I also hope their intensive training pays off especially as the first thing they will have to do is endure ten days at sea to reach Gough via Tristan da Cunha. The photos at the end of this blog give you a flavour of their new world.
Despite the tragedy of seabird losses that unfolds every year, sometimes the data collected about breeding success gives glimpses of hope. This year, the Tristan albatross has had one of the highest recorded rates of breeding success in well over a decade, if not more. This compares to the dismal rate of less than 10% recorded as recently as the 2014 breeding season. While the rate this year is still not enough to sustain the population, it is a much needed temporary lifeline for the Tristan albatross. All going well, the chicks that survived to fledge their nests this year, will return to breed on an island free of mice. Their offspring will have a much greater chance of survival to adulthood, while the gruesome images of mice attacks will stop for good.
The next two years will be incredibly exciting for all of us. We are embarking on one of our most important conservation projects. I hope that it inspires you and if you would like to support our efforts to prevent the extinction of the Tristan albatross and the Gough bunting, please use the form accessible by clicking here.
With your support, we can remove the mice and provide a brighter future for Gough Island and its critically endangered wildlife.
Fabrice, Jaimie and Kate attending wilderness survival training prior to their departure for Gough Island (photo credit: RSPB)
The view from the deck on board the S.A. Agulhas II showing some rough going as the team travel to Gough (photo credit: Jaimie Cleeland)
The weather base on Gough Island where the RSPB team will call home for the next 13 months. (Photo credit: Derren Fox)
This is fantastic news and so much credit needs to go to the RSPB for getting this vital project "off the ground" it is so important. If I am right the project should also benefit the threatened Northern Rockhopper Penguin and the critically endangered Gough Island Bunting. I shall be making a further donation to the one I made early this year to really support this key work. .
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