This partnership project between RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Nicolson family, who have been custodians of the Shiant Isles for three generations, will provide safe breeding sites for some of Scotland's globally important seabird colonies.
The Shiant Isles are one of the most important breeding colonies for seabirds in Europe - around 10 per cent of UK puffins and 7 per cent of UK razorbills breed here every year. However, as well as these amazing seabird populations, the islands are also home to invasive non-native black rats.
Black rats are thought to have arrived on the Shiant Isles from an 18th century shipwreck. They now occupy the main islands in the archipelago. In April 2012 a survey estimated there were around 3,600 rats on the islands - this number increases significantly in the summer months when more food is available.
The invasive non-native black rats are known to consume eggs and chicks on the islands. Their presence is considered to be impacting the productivity of ground nesting species and preventing other species like Manx shearwaters and European storm petrels from breeding here.
The project has two main stages; it aims to eradicate the invasive non-native black rats and to encourage Manx shearwaters and storm petrels to breed on the Shiant Isles.
The rat eradication will take place during winter 2015-2016 when rat numbers are lowest and seabirds and other species are not on the islands. It involves setting poisons in bait stations across each of the Shiant Isles, including the stacks, and will take more than four months of baiting to complete.
Spending a winter on such remote islands in the Minch will be extremely challenging and the rugged terrain and steep cliffs will make it even more so. An operational plan has been developed following substantial research which will ensure this is achieved in the safest and most effective way.
Similar eradication projects on other UK islands including Ailsa Craig, Ramsey and Lundy have already been extremely successful. Manx shearwater numbers on Lundy have increased tenfold in the 10 years since eradication, and storm petrels were recorded there for the first time in 2014.
From spring 2016 Manx shearwaters and storm petrels will be encouraged to nest on the Shiant Isles, and their expected recovery will be monitored. Breeding success of seabirds on the islands will be monitored to establish how they have benefited from the islands' restoration.
The abundance and diversity of the land bird populations will be investigated to see how they respond to the change. Monitoring of the flora and invertebrate communities will also take place to see how these communities adapt.
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The Shiant Isles have ideal breeding ground for Manx shearwaters and storm petrels. Once the rats are removed, these islands will offer a great prospect for these birds setting up a new colony.
To encourage Manx shearwaters and storm petrels to do so we shall be establishing playback systems. Speakers temporarily put on the cliffs will broadcast the Manx shearwaters' haunting cackles and storm petrels' churring. These are known to draw in birds in the area and are used by the Shiant Auk Ringing Group to capture and ring storm petrels around the islands.
The decline of invasive non-native black rats in the UK can be attributed to the arrival of brown rats which are larger and outcompete them. Since the eradication of black rats from Lundy, there are often claims that the Shiant Isles have the only remaining UK population. This is not the case.
Although the black rat is rare in the UK, evidence demonstrates that populations other than the Shiants Isles' survive on other islands and in localised areas of the British mainland. Recent National Biodiversity Network data show populations around the UK, particularly in ports and port towns. This is supported by anecdotal records from London and Liverpool.
Black rats remain common and widespread throughout their historic natural range in Asia, where the population is stable and faces no known threat to its conservation status. The species is also still common in large areas of the world where it has been introduced.
As well as bringing Manx shearwaters and storm petrels to the Shiant Isles, this project also aims to build UK expertise in island restoration, particularly biosecurity, to minimise the risk of future invasive species and the need for more of these projects. As part of this we are working to develop best practice guidance for seabird islands and will be working to engage and train island owners and managers, as well as those likely to visit these places, such as the yachting and fishing communities, in these skills.
The dramatic Shiant Isles rise up from the sea around five miles east of Harris in the Hebrides. Their name derives from the Gaelic Na h-Eileanan Seunta meaning "holy" or "enchanted" isles. This tiny cluster of islands is one of the most important seabird breeding sites in Europe and is designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) to protect them.
Scotland's seabirds need our help. Between 2000 and 2012, 10 of the 16 monitored Scottish seabird colonies suffered from significant decline and Scotland and the UK have a global responsibility for these species - 80 per cent of the world's Manx shearwaters breed around our shores.
The reasons for these declines are complex and in many cases are related to changes in their prey. However, invasive non-native species, like the black rat, can have significant impacts on seabird species' ability to breed and in many cases make islands uninhabitable for seabirds. The RSPB is committed to doing everything it can to protect and restore our seabird populations and this project is part of that commitment.
At the peak of the breeding season the Shiant Isles are home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds including 10 per cent of the UK population of puffins and 7 per cent of the UK population of razorbills.
As one of the most important seabird breeding sites in Europe the Shiant Isles are a designated Special Protection Area (SPA). However, both the populations of razorbills and guillemots on the islands are in unfavourable declining status. There is also evidence that suggests the puffin colony used to be more extensive.
Predation by the black rats, combined with other pressures including climate change, pollution, unsustainable fisheries and inappropriate development, is limiting the chances of these seabird populations to reverse declines. This project aims to aid the recovery of these populations and bring the SPA into favourable condition. By removing the rats, the seabirds will have a safer place to breed and a greater chance of successfully raising chicks, and more of these species may be attracted to nest on the islands.
Once the rats have been eradicated, the Shiants must be monitored and protected against re-invasion.
All island visitors need to be aware of the need for biosecurity. If you are visiting the Shiants please follow these five points:
For more information on biosecurity contact the RSPB Scotland Western Isles office on 01859 550463.
Throughout the four-year project there will be a number of ways that volunteers can get involved and take part. For more information on these volunteering possibilities please contact the RSPB Scotland Western Isles office on 01859 550463.
This project is a chance to secure and enhance the seabirds of the Shiant Isles.
The UK has a global responsibility to protect its seabirds and the RSPB is taking all action to help reverse their decline. Existing colonies will be restored and new colonies will encouraged.
The islands will be left to nature as a safe haven for breeding seabirds.
This project will cost more than £1 million. Around half is funded through the EU LIFE+ programme. SNH have also provided significant financial support. The remainder of the project is being funded through donations.
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