Regular readers of this blog will know every October, at the end of the breeding season, we head out to our RSPB Grassholm reserve,home to 36,000 pairs of northern gannets, to cut free birds (mainly fledglings) that have become entangled in marine debris during the year. OVer the years these posts are a big like groundhog day so to avoid too much repetition I will direct you to previous years posts for more detail - see here for 2015 within which there are links to previous years accounts too
After scrutinising the forecast for days we took our chance and headed out under the expert guidance of Tim and Beth from Venture Jet who once again landed us safely and returned us home (thanks to Tim for coming ashore and helping too). With a fresh easterly blowing it was a wet crossing but the SSE facing 'landing' was sheltered meaning a relatively easy disembarkation. We spent around 2 hours on the island and in three teams of two we covered all 9ha ensuring no birds were missed.
This year we cut free 39 birds (36 fledglings and 3 adults), bringing the 2016 total to 49 with the additional birds cut free during our summer gannet tracking trips with University of Exeter. Since 2005, when more regular trips and accurate record taking began, we have cut free 606 birds. This is, thankfully, not a particularly large number when you consider there are 36,000 pairs nesting but the purpose of this work is both an animal welfare one and an opportunity to raise awareness of marine litter issues which otherwise sit 'out of site, out of mind' on these forlorn Atlantic outposts.
Previous studies have shown there are an estimated 18 tonnes of plastic on the island. Removing it is impossible; even if a way could be found it would result in the destruction of most nests in the colony and given gannets have a complex social structure could possibly lead to site desertion by large numbers. Putting all that aside it is likely to be a fruitless exercise anyway as within 20 years the colony would likely have the same amount of plastic debris on it as today
The bulk of the plastic is discarded rope and fishling line from the fishing industry, followed by packaging tape found in regular commercial use plus an element of household plastic debris. Birds spending many months sat on a nest dome can become entangled and 'tethered' to their nest site. Without intervention they would eventually starve. Those we can free are usually in good health and ready to leave, the adults keep on feeding them long after they should have fledged in many cases. Some however have very bad leg wounds and it is debatable how well these survive. In some, thankfully rare, cases birds have damaged wings that are beyond salvation and have to be euthanised (no such cases this year).
It often feel like we are merely 'fire fighting' when we head out each October but awareness raising is the only hope for reducing plastic debris in our seas so please feel free to share this, and other such blogs, on the topic and follow and support marine conservation organisations on social media to find out more. If you are on Twitter search for #marinelitter to link to you to a host of worthy causes on this subject and if you have time why not try a '2 minute beach clean'
A big thanks to our 2016 team who helped myself and Lisa - Sarah Parmor (RSPB Ramsey Intern), Rhiannon Meier, Scarlett Hutchin and Morgan Wicks (skipper with our Ramsey boat operator Thousand Islands Expeditions) - volunteers one and all!
Photos of the 2016 trip below
Birds are not only tethered to the nest but can have netting around the beak too - four of us manged to corral this one into a corner and catch it
One person gets hold of the bird, the other cuts it free - depending on how tangled it is this can take anything from a few seconds to over five minutes
Unfortunately we can't get to them all in time. If we came any earlier in the season the level of disturbance caused by walking through the colony would do more harm than good. Young birds not ready to fledge would be pushed over the edge too soon
With the bulk of the colony like a ghost down those birds tethered to their nests cut a lonely figure....
They are never grateful afterwards!
2016 Team - thanks to all