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.
Welcome to our first guest blog from Dr Roo Campbell, project manager for the priority areas programme of Scottish Wildcat Action. Dr Campbell has significant experience of carrying out research on the behaviour and ecology of Scottish wildcats and received his PhD in Zoology from Oxford University. He is based at Scottish Natural Heritage, Inverness.
Scottish Wildcat Action: a round-up of 2016
The stage is set for the most exciting development to date: our first wildcat survey. Winter is the best time to try and get cats on camera as they are feeling hungry and amorous. It is their main breeding season after all. So the team in wildcat priority areas have been busy setting up hundreds of trail cameras to monitor cat populations and training an army of volunteers.
By the end of the Christmas holidays, everything will be ready for the biggest simultaneous wildcat survey ever conducted. We can then use all the information we collect on the cats to target further conservation work, such as the Trap Neuter Vaccinate Release programme (TNVR).
It has been an extraordinary effort by everyone and we are very lucky to have the support of so many talented staff and volunteers, not to mention the generous land owners who have granted us permission to set up cameras on their land. Thank you.
We're mainly using quail carcasses as bait but partridge would no doubt also be welcomed by our feline friends (shh, we have a secret stash of these in the freezer for those wildcats that have behaved themselves!). The problem is that meat bait also attracts pine marten, badgers and foxes who could take it before a cat finds it. So, we use pheasant wings hung up high (badgers can’t jump) and we have been experimenting with soaking the bait sticks with salmon oil. It’s beginning to sound like a three-course festive dinner, isn’t it? So far, it has been really effective.
In addition to the hard work put in by everyone, the success of this survey also depends on an element of meteorological luck. Will the winter be very mild? If so, the cats may be less hungry. Too much snow on the other hand will make the job of the volunteers more difficult. I have occasionally had to leave my vehicle stuck in snowdrifts while I continue on foot in snow shoes or skis. The goldilocks zone is a cold and dry winter, with a little bit of snow to help us find cat tracks. We are looking forward to sharing the results of the first survey with you in spring.
In the meantime, you can follow Scottish Wildcat Action on Facebook or Twitter to get regular updates and photos. Please do report any sightings of wild-living cats you see in the Highlands too. This will all add to our understanding of what cats are out there, whether they are wildcats, hybrids or feral cats.
Scottish Wildcat Action is the first national project to save the highly endangered Scottish wildcat from extinction. It is a partnership involving over 20 organisations, including: RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Royal Zoological Society of Scotland (RZSS), Cairngorms National Park Authority, Forestry Commission Scotland, National Museums Scotland, National Trust for Scotland, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh, Scottish Gamekeepers’ Association and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. It is funded by Heritage Lottery Fund and Scottish Government, as well as its partners. Click here to get involved.
Jim Densham, Senior Land Use Policy Officer with RSPB Scotland, has this update on recent climate change negotiations and the Paris Agreement.
The birth of the Paris Agreement
The past few weeks watching the Paris Agreement negotiations has been like waiting for a birth as a new father all over again. We didn’t quite know when it would be born, its birth was delayed, and being in Glasgow I definitely felt removed from the process. But when it did arrive there was the moment of relief and happiness, checking it all over to make sure it was real and everything was there. Also similar to having a baby, everyone has an opinion about the newborn and how to bring it up; what it needs to thrive.
Like the African proverb which says ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child’ so the Paris Agreement will demand all of us to give effort and attention if it is to be live up to its promise. We always knew that Paris would not solve climate change there and then – it was not an end point but rather a beginning.
This ‘Beyond Paris’ focus is needed because at present there is a significant gap between the country GHG reduction promises and what is needed to meet the 1.5oC aim of the Agreement. We know that nature has an important role to play in helping us bridge that gap and this has been recognised in the wording of the Agreement. It outlines that ‘Parties should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases...., including forests,’ That means that countries must protect and restore habitats like tropical forests and peatlands because of the carbon stored in them and their ability to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. This paves the way for some of our conservation activities like blanket bog restoration to attract investment and the carbon savings being counted towards meeting Scotland’s climate targets. Restored habitats will also provide more homes for nature – the very nature being affected by climate change now.
We have been calling for a new global climate agreement for many years. Many of you bravely joined us and 5000 others in the windy wet weather to march through Edinburgh at Scotland’s Climate March on Nov 28th. Thank you – your voice counted. It was a tremendous shout out from Scotland to the world and to our own politicians that we need climate action now. World leaders and diplomats delivered the Agreement on Saturday - what we must do now is to hold the Scottish Government to account and ensure that they meet the ambition of the Agreement.
There are many books written about how to raise children, there have been many and varied words written about the Paris Agreement – both for and against it. It’s not perfect but it is the only one we have. It needs us all to use our voices to make sure it drives forward the strong climate action that the planet, people and wildlife needs.