Welcome to the tenth instalment of our work on the Shiant Isles Recovery Project. The project is an initiative to remove non-native black rats from the isles in order to provide safe breeding sites for Scotland’s globally important seabird colonies. It is part funded by the EU LIFE+ programme and is a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Nicolson family, who have been the custodians of the Shiant Isles for three generations. Here Adam Long takes us through some of the work involved in the final check of the islands in February. This was done to ensure that the Shiants has been rat free for two years so could be officially designated as so.

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Shiants episode 10: The final check

I spent early February this year in the Western Isles of Scotland, helping with the Shiant Isles Seabird Recovery project. For the last few years a partnership project between the Nicolson family, custodians of the islands, Scottish Natural Heritage and RSPB Scotland has been underway to eradicate invasive black rats from the Shiants and make them a secure haven for nesting seabirds., Our team was on the islands to carry out the final stage - a thorough check to confirm that the islands are indeed rat-free.

The Shiants are one of the great wildlife sites of the Hebrides. During spring and summer their cliffs, steep slopes and screes are the breeding grounds of hundreds of thousands of seabirds, including puffins, guillemots and razorbills and a handful of white-tailed eagles. The cliffs and screes present both the perfect place for rats to hide and a major problem for access - which is where I come in. I’m a rope access specialist with a lifelong interest in wild places and nature. Many of the nesting colonies on the Shiants can only be accessed by abseil - tricky work that requires the right equipment, thorough training and a good head for heights.

We spent the first few days in Stornoway, meeting the team, packing equipment, refreshing rope techniques and cooking up some 3000 wax baits. After a slight delay due to high winds we sailed out of Tarbert on a perfectly calm morning under a clear blue sky. Divers and black guillemots studded the flat water and fresh snow lay on the Harris hills. As we rounded huge northern cliffs of the Shiants a white-tailed eagle soared out as if to check out the new arrivals above the cliffs. The rest of the first day was spent unloading and sorting gear, food, fuel and clothing for the month ahead. By evening we were well settled into the bothy with a roaring fire and tins stacked to the ceiling.

The nine of us split into two groups for the check. Four - led by head honcho Biz Bell - made up the ground team covering the main area, and five on the rope access team. Our first job was to locate and test all the anchor bolts placed at the start of the project over two years back. With that done we could start abseiling the cliffs and begin the survey. During the initial phase of the eradication a grid of bait stations had been established. The baits are non-toxic and made to Biz’s tried and trusted recipe in three rat-tempting flavours of chocolate, aniseed and peanut butter. Each bait station needed finding - not an easy job on an overgrown cliff-face - and then the bait checking for rat-sign - tell-tale parallel nibble marks - and then renewing. In late winter on the Shiants natural food supplies are at their lowest. Timing our check for this time of scarcity would give us the best chance of detecting any surviving rats.

For the first couple of days the weather held fine. The climbing team routine involved taking it in turns between descending the cliffs and remaining at the top to maintain radio contact and stand by for any problems. That duty happily gave plenty of time to enjoy the wildlife - the fulmars prospecting for nest sites, the shags flying out to fish, and the big flock of barnacle geese lifting into the air as one at the slightest disturbance. One afternoon the wind dropped and the sun shone while the water between the islands stilled to an oily calm. From my vantage point at the top of the cliff I peered into the deep green water at seals chasing fish through the swaying kelp.

As the survey progressed we soon acclimatised to island life, drinking cold well-water, keeping the bothy fire stoked as well as plenty of marching up and down the islands. We had plenty of weather but the bad stuff rarely lasted long, and only the odd day was lost to listening to the wind whine through the door crack as the rain hammered the roof. More often we’d enjoy sunny spells whilst storm clouds passed in stately procession to either side of us with wispy veils of snow or hail suspended beneath. The wilder weather brought different birds too; Manxies flickered through the sound, gannets plunge-dived right in front of the bothy, and auks sought shelter in the bay.

My stay was over all too soon, and after the full month the team had checked every corner of the islands. No sign of rats, although the local ravens were quick to investigate the wax blocks, leaving deep one-sided gouges in the side of the wax. With the rats gone it is hoped the breeding success of existing species should increase, and Manx shearwaters and storm petrels may colonise. Vigilance and cooperation with visitors, shepherds and fisherman will be required to prevent rats returning but the future looks bright for the seabirds of the Shiants.

The Shiant Isles Recovery Project is a partnership between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Nicolson Family, it is funded by EU LIFE+ Nature [LIFE13 NAT/UK/000209 – LIFE Shiants] and private donations. The eradication is being led by Wildlife Management International with the support of Engebrets and Sea Harris Ltd.