Research team members, Davide, Niall & Laura, have this fascinating new blog giving us an insight into the Shiant Isles Recovery Project so far - as well as their work, life and wildlife watching on the Shiants!
A peak inside life on the ‘enchanted isles’
As hail, rain and strong North-Westerly winds batter the Shiant Isles, the isolated Research Team is now forced to seek shelter in the Bothy, the only complete building anywhere on the islands. The light and warmth of a fireplace provide a comfortable setting to write some words to the outside world and share with you some of the challenging, yet incredible memories, we have experienced so far.
But first...some background
The SHIANT ISLES RECOVERY PROJECT is an initiative to remove non-native Black Rats (Rattus rattus) from the isles in order to provide safe breeding sites for Scotland’s globally important seabird colonies and contribute to reversing the long-term declines that many seabird populations are facing. The project 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.
Located in the Minch between Skye and Harris, the Shiants are a small, remote group of uninhabited islands in the Hebrides. Their name derives from the Gaelic Na h-Eileanan Seunta, meaning “holy” or “enchanted” isles. The name surely rings true for seabirds, where 65,200 pairs of Puffins (10% of the UK population) return to breed each year as well as 18,380 Guillemots, 10,950 Razorbills (7% of the UK population) and numerous other species.
They also show huge potential as breeding grounds for the rare and endangered Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel. However, the fact that black rats also make the islands their home stops that.
Manx shearwater, Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)
Rat removal programmes have already proven to be successful on a number of UK islands, including Canna, Sanday, Ramsey and Lundy. Since the eradication of rats on Lundy, in the Bristol Channel, the number of Manx Shearwater breeding on the island have increased tenfold and there are now four times as many Puffins whilst Guillemots and Razorbills have also increased by around 25%. In 2014 the first Storm Petrels were also recorded on the islands.
Welcome to the “Shiant family”
If you know a bit about sailing, you must agree that crossing the Minch cannot be undertaken lightly. Luckily we are in safe hands thanks to the skills of Capitan ex-marine Joe and his (motley) crew aboard the rib ‘Per mare’. Sea and sky seemed in condition and at 10am on 20th of April 2015, when we left Stornoway for our first three weeks stay on the Shiants.
After an hour journey on a smooth sea with Fulmars and Gannets racing alongside us, the islands’ distant shadows start gaining some colours and detail. The islands are spectacular and full of character. So much so, that they have been compared by Adam Nicholson, their patriarch, to a family: firstly on the left Eilean Mhuire (Mary Island) - the mother; on the right Garbh Eilean (Rough Island) – the father - the largest and highest of the islands with imposing cliffs on the north and a huge boulder field on the east coasts.
Boulder field, David Scridel
At the back of Garbh Eilean, connected by a causeway of shingle is the third island Eilean an Tigh (House Island) - the child, the most sheltered and hospitable. It is home to a bothy, and with our tents alongside it, this is our current residence. The bothy is the only complete building on the islands, although the many ruined sheilings and stonework are reminders of the islands’ rich history of human habitation.
Since the islands have no natural harbour or landing place, getting ourselves and our heavy equipment ashore can be challenging. Once the rib is moored, Joe ploughs his small dingy between boat and shore to deliver us to the islands (per mare, per terram!).
White-tailed eagles, Davide Scridel
Stepping over the side of the dingy, we negotiate the slippery rocks and seaweed prostrate before regaining some stature and finally reaching the bothy. Upon our first arrival we were immediately welcomed by seven eagles (two Goldies and five White-tailed), initially soaring above the cliffs and immense boulder field of Garbh Eilean and then circling 50m above our heads - interested in the arrival of the new clumsy neighbours.
The Shiants rats are frequent visitors inside the islands bothy, so when you first open the door - like a rat yourself - you start by sniffing around and looking for who has come before you. Droppings and nibbles are not unusual in the cupboards or on the beds, but we have been lucky so far.
The season is still at its early stage and the rat population has yet not built up in numbers. The bothy is more than a shelter from a storm. Its views, furniture, smell, old maps on the walls and books left by visitors give the ‘Sea Room’ its unique character and charm.
Where on earth can you cook whilst watching for Minky whales, Black Guillemots, seals and distant Gannets diving into the sea?! It has also provided safe shelter when our tents were damaged by +50 mph gales and provided a warmer environment during the nights when temperatures reached the warmth of.....-6C.
Bless the bothy and those who made it.
But why are we here?
This is the first field season of the four year project and the three person Research Team has been tasked with monitoring the isles biodiversity before and after the rat eradication, which will take place over winter 2015.
We are focusing on measuring seabird breeding success as well as looking at the invertebrate and flora communities in order to provide an important baseline to compare changes that occur after the rats have been removed.
Shiants Wildlife Encounters...so far
The seabird community was here to welcome us on our arrival. Large rafts of auks in the bay have formed with pairs of Razorbills and Puffins meeting again after a winter spent apart.
During our first two weeks, Razorbills and Puffins spent their time flying continuously from sea to the boulder field; courting, billing and head-shaking when on land. Mating behaviours have also been observed with birds also starting to inspect cavities, ledges and burrows for future egg-laying.
Shags are slightly ahead with nests almost completed and starting to lay their first eggs. Whilst searching for the early incubating birds a few weeks back, we all experienced our first lifer, finding our first leucistic Puffin.
Leucistic puffin, Davide Scridel
Spring is still arm wrestling winter on the Shiants, small flocks of Barnacle Geese are still present. More unusual avian visitors to the isles have included Coal tit, Curlew, Whimbrel, Redwing, Blackbird, Collared Dove and a colour ringed Snow Bunting, ringed in France!
The islands’ flora has only timidly started to bloom, Lesser Celandine (one of rats favourite plants) and Primroses are the only flowering plants to date. Although it has been a very cold spring, some invertebrates have begun to move around too.
During rare spells of sunshine, wolf spiders have been seen scuttling across the grassy tussocks in abundance. Unlike the familiar web building species such as the Garden cross (common in virtually every garden, but also at home among the sheltered boulders on Eilean an Tighe), wolf spiders are active hunters that run down their prey. It has been suggested that species such as the wolf spiders will be favoured on the Shiants, since they find refuge beneath rocks between hunting trips and can survive the very windy conditions far better than the web builders.
We also saw some of the first bumblebees of the year including Northern White-tailed, Buff-tailed and the gingery-bodied Moss Carderbees. These queens were perhaps still looking for nest sites or beginning to feed their growing workers.
Shiants Human encounter...so far
Apart from a quick visit by a group of local fisherman-holidaymakers- from Stornoway (!), we were delighted to know that Adam Nicolson himself was coming to the Shiants with a small filming crew to start filming a documentary. Having Adam on the island was an immense pleasure not only for the enormous quantity of food and beverages that he brought along, but also for sharing his knowledge and love for the islands’ history with us.
Adam Nicolson, Davide, James, Laura & Niall
More stories and updates to come, hopefully in nicer weather!
Allan Whyte, RSPB Scotland Marine Policy Officer, gives us an update on MPAs in Scotland.
A Quick Update about Marine Protection in Scotland
I’m really glad to say we have some positive news on Scotland’s marine environment. Some of the Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) that were designated last year have just had their management measures published, and they’re looking good.
Puffins, Derren Fox
Management is what makes MPAs more than just lines on maps. The measures put restrictions on what can happen in an MPA and stops activities that damage the wildlife the MPA has been set up to protect.
So, it was great when Richard Lochhead, the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment and Rural Affairs, announced that the first batch of MPA management measures would be strong, would ban or severely restrict damaging fishing activity and would protect some of Scotland’s best wildlife.
This is fantastic news for all the RSPB supporters who have campaigned over the years with RSPB Scotland and Scottish Environment LINK, through our ‘Don’t Take the P (out of MPAs)’ campaign.
Marine Scotland and the Government have done a great job to make sure that these sites are well managed. Let’s hope the next group of MPAs to have management measures assigned are equally good, especially as these will include MPAs for black guillemots.
Black guillemot, Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)
The new management measures mean that scallop dredging, the fishing practice that can tear up the sea floor, will be banned or heavily restricted from areas where there is sensitive marine life.
An important measure for seabirds is the ban on set-net fishing throughout all of the MPAs. Seabirds that dive into the water in search of food can get trapped in nets and drown, so it’s great to hear action has been taken.
All of this is good news for wildlife and coastal communities. Protected areas can be a big boost for tourism and a healthy marine environment is good for recreational marine users and can help recover fish-stocks.
There will be some out there that will argue that this news is bad for fishermen, particularly scallop fishermen. However, these new measures will only displace 1.6% of the scallop fishing effort in Scottish waters. The measures don’t stop anyone from fishing, they simply keep the most damaging fishing activities away from the most sensitive sites. This is a sensible approach, required to protect and recover Scotland’s seas.
We’ll be keeping an eye on the impacts these new management measures have and working hard over the summer to make sure that we secure the 14 Special Protection Areas for seabirds the Scottish Government announced in summer 2014.
If you have any questions about this get in touch with us of Facebook or Twitter.
Kirsty Potter, RSPB Scotland's Support Relations Officer, fills us in on her day at the official opening of the tree nursery at our Abernethy reserve.
An exciting event at RSPB Scotland Abernethy!
Having just joined RSPB Scotland in March, I was lucky enough to visit our beautiful Abernethy reserve last month for a very special event; our official native tree nursery opening. Along with donations from the public, several trusts and organisations have supported the project and have helped make the tree nursery possible: ScottishPower Foundation; Laing O’Rourke on behalf of Scottish Water; Cairngorms National Park Authority; Awards For All – Scotland; Speyside Wildlife, Scot Mountain Holidays; Walkers of Aberlour; and Abernethy Conservation and Fundraising Group.
Abernethy Primary School children officially open the tree nursery (Photo by Kirsty Potter)
The tree nursery opening marked an important stage in our visionary forest expansion project on the reserve and we were delighted to welcome children from Abernethy Primary School who officially opened the nursery. The lucky pupil who cut the ribbon seemed really chuffed to have this responsibility, especially because it involved a pair of shears!
It was fantastic to meet our guests from our supporter organisations who have helped to fund the tree nursery. Being so new to RSPB Scotland, this was my first opportunity to speak face to face with many of the people I’d been exchanging emails and phone calls with. I was struck with how enthusiastic they are about RSPB Scotland and the project and how pleased they are to be involved. It made me very proud to work here!
Abernethy is a really special place for some of Scotland’s most iconic species and the forest expansion project will ensure that it remains this way for years to come. It was so interesting to learn that many of the original tree species in the Caledonian forest at Abernethy are currently found at very low numbers and far below what they once would have been. The forest expansion project will regenerate and expand the ancient Caledonian forest by around 3,000 hectares, almost doubling its size over the next 200 years.
All of our guests got stuck in and helped to sow the tree seeds that had been harvested from the reserve (and stored in the fridge at Forest Lodge!). Reserve volunteers and staff took charge of small but exuberant groups that helped prepare the soil, measure out sections for planting, and finally to sow the tree seeds. It was very fitting that Abernethy Primary School children were involved in this process because it will be their generation and those to come who will see the long-term results of the forest expansion project of which the tree nursery is an integral part. They all had a lot of fun getting their hands dirty and enjoyed being outdoors instead of in the classroom. A few of the pupils seemed to be having a competition to find the biggest worm at one point....
Thanks to the help of our guests, and many more volunteers to come, the planted trees will re-establish some of the forest’s missing diversity, and the forest at Abernethy will continue to expand towards its natural limit, and connect with other native pinewood remnants.
Ann Loughrey, Trustee and Executive Officer, ScottishPower Foundation helps Abernethy Primary School pupils to plant tree seeds (Photo by Kirsty Potter)
We were all treated to a lovely reception at Forest Lodge afterwards as part of the official opening ceremony. Many of us were torn between naming the highlight of the day as visiting the forest edge to see where the regeneration and enrichment planting is taking place and helping out or the incredible tree nursery celebration cakes, kindly brought along by Sally Dowden, of Speyside Wildlife.
I was also lucky enough to have the chance to explore some parts of the reserve and came across red squirrels and also some Scottish crossbills that were absolutely beautiful. I’d seen neither species before and so it was a fantastic experience. There wasn’t time to visit the Osprey Centre at Loch Garten however. In the short time I’ve worked at RSPB Scotland, I’ve become engrossed in the feathered soap opera that the ospreys give us so I’ll be making sure to go to Abernethy again as soon as possible to catch a glimpse of an osprey or two. There is also so much more of the reserve to explore because it covers such a large area and the changing seasons mean that no visit is ever the same.
Every time I visit Abernethy I will be really keen to see the progress of the seeds that were planted that day and I’m sure that there will be many more opportunities for our generous funders to visit the tree nursery again to see what a positive impact their funding has allowed us to have on the forest.