RSPB’s Morwenna Alldis celebrates the success of the RSPB’s partnership projects to restore seabirds on the island of Lundy and the Isles of Scilly.

The seabird recovery projects we’ve had a major role in implementing on the Island of Lundy and the Isles of Scilly, have delivered some of the most positive wins for conservation in the shortest amount of time. The results on Lundy are staggering, with Manx shearwaters increasing 18-fold in just 14 years. These projects have demonstrated the incredible power for change when conservationists and local communities come together to do good for nature.

Photo above: Manx shearwater flying over the sea by Ed Marshall

Why did Lundy and the Isles of Scilly need our help?

The island of Lundy in Devon, owned by the National Trust and managed by The Landmark Trust, was once home to a thriving colony of breeding seabirds. In 1939 there were approximately 80,000 individual birds on the island, including Manx shearwaters, puffins, razorbills, and common guillemots. However, the national census survey in 2000 found that these numbers had plummeted, with only 7,351 birds remaining, and with puffins near to extinction on the island.

Photo above: Razorbill on Lundy with fish in its bill by Helen Booker

It’s a similar story for the Isles of Scilly, 60% of which is managed by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust. The isles are home to 13 species of seabirds including both European storm petrel and Manx shearwater, for which the UK has a global responsibility. Boasting approximately 20,000 birds of all species, this number started to decline in 1983, with an overall drop of about 25% by 2006.

The reasons for these declines in both locations includes rat predation of the ground nesting birds’ eggs, chicks, and sometimes even the adult birds. Rats are introduced predators to the islands, likely to have washed up from shipwrecks in the 18th century. Comparing Lundy’s depleted seabird population with healthy numbers on the nearby rat free islands of Skomer and Skokholm, confirmed rats as the root cause of the declines. Likewise, for the Isles of Scilly - seabird numbers were thriving on the uninhabited and largely rat-free island of Annet. But numbers were steeply dropping on the inhabited isles of St Agnes and Gugh where brown rats were resident.

Photo above: Volunteers surveying seabirds on the Isles of Scilly by Ed Marshall

*Removal of brown rats on the uninhabited islands has been carried out by the Isles of Scilly Environment Trust (now Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust) since 1998 and biosecurity measures are in place at the most important. This has meant some key seabird islands have been maintained 'rat-free', although incursion of rats from the inhabited islands is frequent in winter on others.

Working Together to Save Seabirds

Lundy: In 2001 the Lundy Seabird Recovery Project formed - a partnership between Natural England, RSPB, The National Trust and The Landmark Trust.

With the support of volunteers from the RSPB and The National Trust, expert contractors eradicated rats from Lundy over the winters of 2002/03 and 2003/04. The island was officially declared rat free in 2006 and has remained as such so far.

St Agnes and Gugh: In 2010 the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project was set up – a partnership between RSPB, the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, Natural England, the Duchy of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and supported by the Isles of Scilly Bird Group. This was a flagship project in its reliance on conservationists working hand-in-hand with the local community to eradicate rats from the two islands. As of February 2016, residents have celebrated a rat-free status. The Isles of Scilly are officially the biggest inhabited islands in the world to become rat-free and the success of this project is because every single resident backed it and actively played a part in supporting the cause.

Photo above: Isles of Scilly community throw their hats in the air to celebrate a rat-free status

Richard McCarthy, Councillor for 12 years for the country's most south westerly and southerly settlements, said: “The opportunity to become Britain's largest rat-free community was something that captured everyone's imagination here, from the oldest farmer to the youngest child.

“The highly professional way that rat removal was planned and carried out won people's unanimous approval. As community representative for the project I can vouch for just how whole-heartedly islanders have lent their support to the tasks required. We’re delighted to see both Manx shearwaters and storm petrels back breeding on territory that had not witnessed such happenings for more than a century.”

Celebrating Seabird Successes

Lundy: A massive positive response from the seabirds since becoming rat free – with numbers of all the key target species going through the roof. Manx shearwaters and puffins have increased dramatically, and storm petrels have recolonised.

Top Lundy Seabird Increases from the 2000 survey-2018 survey:

  • Manx shearwaters, 297 ↑ 5,504 breeding pairs (2017/18 survey)
  • Puffins, 13 ↑ 375 birds recorded – now 848 birds in 2021
  • Guillemots, 2,348 ↑ 6,198 individuals – now 9,880 individuals in 2021
  • Razorbills, 950 ↑ 1,735 individuals – now 3,533 individuals in 2021
  • European storm-petrel, 2014 first successful breeding ever on Lundy – now three breeding sites on the island confirmed (new site confirmed in 2021)

There are now over 26,000 seabirds breeding on Lundy, up from 7,351 prior to rat eradication.

Photo above: Puffin sits amongst clifftop flowers on Lundy by Paul St Pierre

Helen Booker, RSPB Senior Conservation Officer, said: “‘The increases we are seeing in seabirds on Lundy is way beyond our expectations. The eradication of rats has had a profound positive impact. The island is once again internationally important for seabirds. As well as safe nesting sites, the birds need enough food, and it appears the seas around Lundy are supporting this amazing recovery.

“The Landmark Trust is doing a fantastic job in keeping the island rat free. The success of seabird recovery on Lundy is thanks to all the organisations and volunteers involved in the rat eradication and seabird monitoring.”

Photo above: Guillemots gather on the cliffs of Lundy by Paul St Pierre

Top Results for St Agnes and Gugh from last survey in 2015:

  • Manx shearwater, first successful breeding in living memory in 2013 significant increases in population 22 ↑ 69
  • Storm petrels, first breeding in living memory in 2014 significant increases in population since 0 ↑ 44 breeding pairs
  • Scilly (lesser white-toothed) shrew significant increases in population

The incredible increases in the other seabirds has further added value to the project. We are however still seeing severe declines in herring gull and black-backed gull and their future on the island is uncertain.

Photo above: RSPB's Jaclyn Pearson meets the first Manx shearwater chick in living memory on St Agnes by Nick Tomalin

John Peacock, Isles of Scilly community member said: “The latest monitoring carried out shows significant increases in successful breeding pairs of Manx shearwaters and storm petrels. We also believe that birds born on St Agnes in the first few years of the project are now returning to set up burrows of their own.”

Saving Manx Shearwaters

Manx Shearwaters are of particular importance on both Lundy and the Isles of Scilly, as Britain holds an estimated 68–93% of the global breeding population, and over 90% of the British population is confined to Rum in Scotland and the Pembrokeshire islands in Wales. Helping Lundy meet its incredible potential as a nest site haven for Manx shearwaters was a key focus of the rat eradication, so to see their numbers soar so quickly has been one of the biggest wins of the project.

Surveying for Manx shearwaters is a special experience, carried out by playing a recording of male and female duetting Manx’s at the entrance to their burrows. Quietly crouched down, MP3 player in hand – surveyors hold their breath as they wait - if there’s an incubating adult inhabiting the burrow they might call back. We know only about half reply.

Photo above: Surveyor on the Isles of Scilly playing an MP3 recording down a burrow to survey Manx shearwaters by Ed Marshall

Before the eradication of rats from Lundy and the Isles of Scilly, surveyors were met with the ghostly sound of silence from many burrows. But thankfully today, burrow after burrow calls back with the strange, wheezy cooing of a Manxy . Listen to a Manx Shearwater calling back from their burrow on Lundy here.

** Read part two of our Lundy and Isles of Scilly blog, to discover our aspirations for the future of the Island’s seabirds, and how visitors can help keep the seabirds safe.

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