Grassholm is a spectacular reserve. The oldest RSPB reserve in Wales, the only northern gannet colony in Wales and, with 36,000 pairs, the 3rd largest in the world behind Bass Rock and St Kilda. It is a privilege to manage the island and to have the honour to land on it a few times a year as part of my job. Back in the summer that is for scientific research and monitoring purposes but in October, as regular readers of this blog will know, we land to cut free birds entangled in marine debris (mainly fishing line) that birds bring to the colony to build their nests when they mistake it for seaweed.

The number affected is not significant population wise and the good news is it has been less of a problem in recent years. 2021 continued a recent decreasing trend and saw the lowest number of birds needing to be cut free on record, just 14 in total (11 young and 3 adults). A further 55 dead young were found, with 90% of those seemingly from entanglement, but even that figure is reducing (we can't go out any earlier for this job as it would cause unacceptable levels of disturbance and do more harm than good - and no we can't clear all the plastic, if only we could!).

In total over the past 15 years we have cut free 741 birds - a drop in the ocean out of 36,000 pairs but that's not the point. The point is we shouldn't have to rescue any - it's a miserable way to die, tethered to your nest and left to starve. It's too soon to say why we are seeing a drop in numbers affected but we are looking into it and will report back when (if) we know more. One theory is weather - we always seem to cut more free following wet summers, the sort of year when you are wading around in thick gannet guano sludge in October. It is possible the rain washes away the organic material that builds up on top of the plastic and exposes more, thus increasing the entanglement risk in those years? The last few summers have been dry, the usual process of hosing down all your kit after a session out there not needed. Whatever the reason long may it continue!

We set off on the 45 minute trip 9 miles out into the Celtic Sea at dawn, leaving Ramsey behind us in our wake

We waved to our friends on Skomer and Skokholm as we passed by

Small numbers of adults were still present. The fledgling (the dark bird) to the right of the picture was entangled, immediately noticeable by its awkward gait - it was soon cut free)

Adults as well as young birds are affected

Nia cutting free a tangled fledgling - goggles and gloves a must!

3 birds after cutting free - all fit and healthy and ready to have a chance of making it through their first tough winter at least (chicks start off white but moult to all dark before fledging. It is felt they have evolved this strategy to prevent their parents attacking them when they reach adult size - i.e. if they were white at fledgling they would look like other adults). Look at all the plastic woven into the nests - an illustration of why removing it is not feasible, we would destroy 80% of the colony and birds would likely desert the site altogether.

A slightly younger fledgling that is still to moult all its 'chick down'

Grassholm as it will look for the next few months - each of those tumps is a nesting pedestal 

Our team was small this year due to covid restrictions - myself, Nia and Sting

A huge thank you to Thousand Islands Expeditions for once again providing free transport out to the island and, most importantly, landing us and retrieving us safely! The money we would have spent on boat hire can now be spent on other vital conservation work on Ramsey and Grassholm

If you would like to support our work on future missions please consider joining the Friends of Ramsey (which should be the Friends of Ramsey and Grassholm!)

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