Welcome to the eleventh 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 Charlie Main takes us through what checking the cliffs for rats entails and her own experience of it.

It's the final day you can vote for the project to win a Nature2000 Award! Details here.

Shiants episode 11: checking the cliffs

It is February, somewhat below freezing with a chill, northwesterly wind that’s come straight from the Arctic. There are squalls of hail and snow hitting my back as I dig down into a bed of deep grass to find an overgrown monitoring station that was placed on this grassy cliff some 50 m or so above the beach. The rope that attaches me to the cliff-top is tightly locked off in the rope descending device at my waist. The effort of concentration, and the constant movement up and down the cliff is keeping my core warm and pumping blood rapidly around my fleece and wool-layered body. This is the glamorous side of the job, it’s exactly what I’m here to come and do.

Safe rope access on the Shiants was a very necessary part of the eradication and subsequent follow up checks that were required before our recent declaration of rat-free status. The steep slopes and cliffs of the islands are vegetated over wide areas and that makes them great habitat for rats, who are not put off by a 120 m near-vertical climb down to a beach on which to forage. Many nesting birds on the grass-covered cliffs would have been accessible to the rats and therefore vulnerable to predation. Perhaps only the small Shiants kittiwake colony, which is on sheer rock, might have been completely safe from predation.

We worked with contractors Climb Industries Ltd in 2015 to get the rope training necessary to work on the Shiants cliffs. For the final check this year we had the knowledge and experience of Adam Long to refresh our skills. Adam had also come with the right tool (a “Hydrajaw”) to test the bolts we had fixed into the rock two years ago, so that we could be confident of their integrity on which to descend and ascend the ropes.

We’ve tried to think of everything necessary to keep the team safe, while doing the job effectively, and of course enjoyably. The one who waits at the top gets to watch for birds and chew slowly through their snacks. We also occasionally descend together, where a long route ending in a beach meant more monitoring stations, and a better situation for both concerned if you remained together. We stay in contact by radio, and work methodically and carefully. We’ve learnt some rudimentary rescue skills, but in reality, any serious accident out here would mean an immediate call to the Stornoway Coastguard for assistance.

Monitoring at the cliff stations was as intensive as practicable for the final check. We used three flavours of wax block, tracking tunnels baited with peanut butter and motion-activated cameras. Bait stations that had remained in place since the eradication were checked for any chew marks. Stations were put out at 25 – 50 m intervals and checked at least twice over the February final check expedition.

No rat sign. Good. A quick word to my team mate. Then – rope ascender on the main line, a loop made up to a pulley from the harness, and the ascent can be made, just an arm’s length at a time to the top. It is warm work. Just as well the air temperature is below freezing for that part.

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.