Welcome to the fourth instalment of our work on the Shiant Isles Recovery Project from Thomas Churchyard. 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.

Shiants episode four: wild winter work begins

‘Are you all crazy?’

This was the question asked followed by a laugh when I told a local fisherman in Stornoway what we were doing on the Shiants this winter. The news that there’s a group of conservationists living on the Shiant Isles for five months this winter has spread fast around the locals here.

The reason a team of ten are braving the famously wild winter weather of the Minch is we are removing the invasive black rats as part of the Shiant Isles Recovery Project which is creating a safe breeding environment for the seabirds. With the recent uplisting of puffin to globally threatened on the IUCN red list, this work is coming at a critical time.

RSPB Scotland and Wildlife Management International Limited staff with the six intrepid winter volunteers ready to get started on the Shiants. Photo: Charlie Main

So what are we doing this winter?

To remove the rats from the Shiant Isles requires accessing every part of all the islands to install bait stations on a regular grid. This grid of stations will ensure that there is rat poison available in every rat territory and we need to remove every last one to be successful. This means we have accessed all the boulder fields, all the steep grassy slopes and even large grassy ledges halfway down cliffs.

Bait station on Eilean Mhuire. Photo: Thomas Churchyard 

November saw the first rat poison laid across all 1171 bait stations on the three main islands (Eilean an Tighe, Garbh Eilean and Eilean Mhuire). The gruelling task of walking the c.45 km bait lines every 3-4 days checking stations will continue until the end of March 2016. Constant monitoring of the bait allows us to do several things. It gives us information on how the rat population is declining and importantly about where rats are persisting on the Islands enabling us to target any problem spots as the winter progresses. It also ensures that only necessary bait is introduced to the environment as we can control how much is available continually.

Inside a station baited with Contrac® Blox™. Photo: Thomas Churchyard

With the operation underway team spirit is high despite the first taste of Hebridean winter weather and storm Abigail reminding us all of the challenges the weather will throw at us. The thought that 2016 could see the Shiant Isles in the best condition for breeding seabirds since before the arrival of rats is more than enough motivation to keep us going!

 Great news – Galtas discovered to be rat free!

Galta Mor and Galta Beag have been confirmed as rat free. Photo: Thomas Churchyard

Although we are only at the start of the operation we already have some promising news. On a rare calm day we were able to access the Galtas - the chain of small islands and stacks to the west of the Shiant Isles - to check rat monitoring deployed over the summer. We are delighted that we found no sign of rats. It is likely that during the winter months and storms these islands are too hostile to support a rat population. We have left small amounts of bait in place and will return in March for one final check.