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.
Birds of Scotland: a year in numbers
Each year RSPB Scotland monitors, counts and records birds like puffins, corncrakes and kittiwakes right across the country to find out how populations are doing, and to identify which species might need more help. We’ve had some good results this year, and some that are not so good as well. Here’s a summary of all the numbers you need to know from our monitoring work this year.
One of the most exciting stories to emerge in 2015 was the return of red-necked phalaropes to our Balranald reserve in North Uist – it’s the first time these delicate little waders have bred at that site for 31 years! This wasn’t the only good news for this species though; record numbers of phalaropes were counted in two other areas of the country – Shetland and Argyll.
Shetland is the UK stronghold for breeding red-necked phalaropes, particularly the island of Fetlar where RSPB Scotland manages wetlands for these birds. The number of breeding males on the reserve increased from only six in 2008 to 36 in 2015, equalling the highest number ever recorded there. Shetland as a whole was home to 60 breeding phalarope males this year, 20 more than the previous record in 1996. Meanwhile, one breeding area in Argyll had its best year on record too with six males present; at least three broods were observed in August.
We’ve also had some positive results for seabirds in Scotland this year, with large numbers of healthy seabird chicks fledging their nests on our nature reserves. The figures are a welcome reprieve from the chronic declines seen in recent years, which have resulted in two thirds of some bird populations, like those of the kittiwake, being lost. Our nature reserve on Tiree for example saw guillemot numbers grow from 2,068 individuals in 2014 to 2,634, and at Fidra in the Firth of Forth, there were 1,026 active puffin burrows, up from only 800 in 2009.
Unfortunately though, the seabird story has not been consistently good everywhere this year; populations in Shetland and Orkney are still struggling. Only 570 kittiwake pairs were recorded at Marwick Head - a decline of 90% since 1999, when the site used to hold 5,573 pairs. Kittiwakes were lost entirely from North Hill in Orkney, and of the 300 Arctic terns present on Mousa only 20 pairs attempted to breed and none managed to raise any chicks.
Many of the bad results from 2015 can be summed up using just one word: weather. The wind, rain and general sogginess that have been harassing Scotland for much of this year has had a noticeable impact on some of our bird populations.
Corncrakes for example, which are one our rarest breeding birds, suffered a poor breeding season with numbers dropping by nearly a fifth. They’re found in only a few isolated pockets of Scotland, mainly on the islands, and spend the spring and summer here before migrating back to Africa in winter. An RSPB Scotland survey found the number of calling males had fallen by 17% compared to last year, with only 1,069 being counted.
Corncrakes are counted in terms of ‘calling males’ as they stay hidden among tall vegetation, so are more easily found by hearing their distinctive call than by actually seeing them. Nearly all parts of the country that corncrakes live in witnessed a drop in numbers this year. Our scientists say that the exceptionally cold, late spring is the reason behind the reduction in the number of males calling.
Black grouse have been blighted by a similar problem. The young birds hatch in June and July but are particularly vulnerable to cold or wet weather at this time. While numbers of this distinctive grouse were good overall, with a small population increase being recorded, the number of chicks raised in Scotland was lower than average this year. This was to be expected because of the poor weather conditions, but it is likely to have an impact on black grouse numbers in 2016.
And the downright exciting...
It’s always great to hear about birds that are doing well, and there’s one particularly charismatic little bird that’s stood out heads and feathers above the rest for us this year. Long-term monitoring has revealed that the River Tay is possibly the largest stronghold for bearded tits in the whole of the UK.
These birds are only found in reed beds, and data from the BTO has shown that the reed beds in the Tay can house as much as 45% of the bearded tits ringed in Britain. This data is gathered from tiny identification bands which are fitted to birds’ legs by ornithologists, which provide information on movements and lifespan. Surprisingly, bearded tits only colonised the reed beds along the Tay in the early 1990s. RSPB Scotland manages more than half of the area, working with landowners to conserve the habitat.
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