A peak inside life on the 'enchanted isles'

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A peak inside life on the 'enchanted isles'

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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. 

Bothy

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!

Comments
  • Brilliant read, you are doing a great job in a wonderful location, keep it up.