Today is the start of the Island Invasives Conference in Dundee, Scotland, hosted by the South Georgia Heritage Trust and the University of Dundee. This is a week-long affair, attended by conservationists working on saving, protecting and understanding island ecosystems from across the world. The conference is an international event occurring only once every seven years, this being the first time it is being held in the Northern Hemisphere. So, to mark the event, my colleague Sarah Havery (Island Restoration Officer) has written this post to highlight the breadth of RSPB work on this issue.

The spread of invasive non-native species presents one of the greatest threats to biodiversity globally: invasive species are the primary driver of biodiversity loss on islands and the second largest everywhere else. Species adapted to islands are particularly vulnerable, where long isolation has led to the evolution of species that often lack adequate defences against introduced species. This is highlighted by that, of the 724 recorded animal extinctions in the last 400 years, about half were island species. Three-quarters of all threatened bird species occurring on oceanic islands are currently at risk from introduced species (Birdlife, 2017). Invasive predators, especially rats and cats, represent the greatest threat, but the impacts of habitat modification by herbivores and reduced fitness resulting from introduced micro-organisms are also significant. 

Many island ecosystems have been damaged by the arrival and establishment of invasive non-native species, including islands in the UK and UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs). Introduced predators have caused particularly catastrophic damage to waders and seabird colonies, undoubtedly causing numerous extirpations as well as contributing to ongoing declines in the UK. Our UKOTs support many unique species, many which are on the brink of extinction partially or wholly due to the impacts of invasive species. Removing invasive species from islands is an important conservation tool to protect and restore island ecosystems and to prevent further declines and extirpations of native species. 

Thrift on Lundy Island. Photo: Sarah Havery/RSPB

Since the 1990s RSPB and its partners have been involved in a range of complex and challenging island restoration projects, mostly across the UK and UK Overseas Territories. Each project has typically involved the eradication or control of invasive mammals or plants. This has lead to the recovery of internationally important seabird species on important sites, ranging from European storm petrel to Ascension frigatebird. Other observed benefits have included the recovery of native habitats and the protection of vital eco-tourism income for local communities.

Over this week long event, RSPB will be showcasing our successes and aspirations in island restoration in the UK and UKOTs, with presentations on eleven partnership projects we are involved in, as well as facilitating important workshop sessions to tackle some of the biggest current questions in this field of work. Not only does this provide an opportunity to celebrate our successes thus far in island restoration, but it is also an opportunity to learn from others tackling similar challenges from around the world.

Celebrating success

One of the opening talks today is being given by Jaclyn Pearson, Project Manager of the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery project, where brown rats were eradicated from St Agnes and Gugh, Isles of Scilly, in 2016. This project represents one of the largest successful community-based eradications worldwide and has since seen the first Manx shearwaters fledging in living memory and the recolonisation of European storm petrel, as well as having positive impacts on the local economy.

Jaclyn with a manx shearwater chick on St Agnes. Photo: Nick Tomalin/RSPB

Jaclyn will be followed by a talk by Charlie Main, Project Manager of the Shiant Isles Seabird Recovery Project this afternoon. Success of the black rat eradication at the Shiant Isles will be confirmed in early 2018 at the earliest. If successful, the eradication is likely to benefit a range of UK seabirds including Atlantic puffins: the Shiants are thought to provide habitat for approximately 10% of the UK’s breeding population.

Puffins on the Shiants Isles. Photo: John Tayton/RSPB

Other successes that will be celebrated during this week include the seabird recoveries observed on Ramsay and Lundy Islands since the removal of rats. Ramsay Island has seen a 500% increase in Manx shearwater population and the recolonisation of European storm petrel since the rats were removed in 2001. Lundy Island has seen a ten-fold increase in Manx shearwaters in a decade since rat removal, as well as the recolonisation of European storm petrel and has likely contributed to an increase in Atlantic puffin, from 5 individuals in 2004 to 375 individuals in 2017.

The RSPB has also lead to the development of a resource providing technical advice specific to the UK, in a UK Rodent Eradication Best Practice Toolkit, which is being launched on the GB NNSS website this week. This has been produced in partnership with other UK-based governmental and non-governmental organisations working in the field island restoration with input from international experts in this field.

Prioritisation exercises have been completed by RSPB’s Centre of Conservation Science for the islands of the UK and UK Overseas Territories, allowing us to be strategic in our approach to allocating limited resources. A recent paper produced by RSPB’s Centre of Conservation Science this year looked at the UK’s offshore islands and identified those where action against invasive non-native species would have greatest gain for species of conservation concern. The paper can be accessed here..

Our aspirations in island restoration

RSPB priority island restoration efforts include the Gough Island Restoration Programme. This programme aims to eradicate invasive house mice from the island. Gough is a World Heritage site and considered one of the most important seabird islands in the world. Sadly, the impact of mice on Gough is shocking by its scale. Research carried out by the RSPB and our partners at the University of Cape Town has shown that invasive mice kill over 900,000 seabird chicks each and every year.   This island is also home to the last two species of British birds classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Successfully eradicating mice from the island will prevent the deaths of seabirds in such unimaginable scale and give these two Critically Endangered species a chance to thrive and recover.

Gough is situated 1,550 miles from South Africa in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. As one can imagine, any operation on Gough is logistically complex. Should funding allow, and by working with the Tristan da Cunha Island Council, we hope to commence an operation in 2019. 

To date, we have successfully attracted grants from the UK government and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Funding efforts continue today but we have cause for optimism.

The Gough Island Restoration Programme will be presented by John Kelly, the Programme Manager, tomorrow morning.  

Tristan albatross on Gough Island. Photo: Andy Schofield/RSPB

A partnership project with Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) is also underway, aiming to eradicate invasive stoats from the Orkney Isles (Scotland) to protect important populations of ground-nesting bird species. Although stoats are native to mainland UK, they were never originally present on the Orkney Isles and have been introduced there and are impacting important native wildlife. A feasibility study for eradication has been completed, and eradication has been deemed feasible together with ongoing biosecurity to keep the islands stoat free. Currently funding is being sought for what would be the largest stoat eradication attempted worldwide. This project will be presented this afternoon, jointly by Graham Neville from SNH and Sarah Sankey from RSPB Orkney. 

Black guillemots on Orkney. Photo: Steve Sankey.

It is important to mention that our successes and future aspirations could not be achieved without the support of our funders, notably from EU LIFE, EU BEST, Heritage Lottery Fund, Darwin Initiative, David & Lucile Packard Foundation, and the UK Government. 

To summarise, over this coming week we will be engaging with world leaders in this field of work, showing what we and our partners have developed and learnt over the last three decades as well as developing new ideas for facing one of the biggest conservation challenges worldwide.