Welcome to the Shiant Isles Recovery Project

The Shiant Isles Recovery Project was a four-year EU LIFE funded project which ran from 2014 to 2018 to make these islands a secure haven for seabirds and to improve seabird island biosecurity.

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, was focused on providing safe nesting sites for some of Scotland's globally important seabird colonies.

About the project

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, when the project began in 2014, as well as these amazing seabird populations, the islands were also home to a population of invasive non-native black rats.

Black rats were thought to have arrived on the Shiant Isles from an 18th century shipwreck and had colonised the three main islands in the archipelago. In April 2012 a survey estimated there were around 3,600 rats on the islands - this number was thought to increase significantly in the summer months when more food was available.

The non-native black rats were known to predate on seabirds' eggs and chicks on the islands. Their presence was considered to be impacting the breeding success of ground nesting species and discouraging other species like Manx shearwaters and European storm petrels from colonising.

Project Objectives

The four core objectives of the project were to:

  • Remove the invasive non-native population of black rats from the Shiants Isles to protect the internationally important seabird assemblage.
  • Promote colonisation by Manx shearwaters and European storm petrels at the islands.
  • Protect the UK's most important seabird SPAs by promoting and improving biosecurity measures.
  • Build expertise within the UK in island restoration techniques.

In March 2018 the Shiants were declared officially free of black rats as a result of the project and in September 2018 the first storm petrel chick in recorded history was heard calling from a nest crevice on the islands, a sound that the project team had been hoping to hear since the eradication was completed.

How the project did it

The rat eradication took place during winter 2015-2016 when rat numbers were at their lowest due to limited food availability, and when seabirds were not on the islands. Led by Wildlife Management International Limited, which has had successes with similar projects around the world, the eradication operation was carried out using rodenticide distributed in bait stations set in a grid across each of the Shiant Isles, including the sea stacks. This took more than four months to complete. Special measures were put in place to ensure that this phase of the project did not impact on the wildlife on the islands over the winter.

Map of the Shiant Isles

Spending a winter on such remote islands in the Minch was extremely challenging and the rugged terrain and steep cliffs made it even more so. An operational plan was developed following substantial research which ensured this was achieved in the safest and most effective way.

Prior to the project beginning similar eradication projects on other UK islands including Canna, Ramsey and Lundy had already been extremely successful. Manx shearwater numbers on Lundy increased tenfold in the 10 years after eradication, and storm petrels were recorded there for the first time in 2014. More recently, seabirds are already recovering in St Agnes and Gugh in the Isles of Scilly, following the declaration of their rat-free status in 2016.

From spring 2016 Manx shearwaters and storm petrels were encouraged to nest on the Shiant Isles with artificial burrows installed and calls played from speaker systems to attract birds into suitable breeding habitat. In the summer of 2017 calling storm petrels were recorded on the islands for the first time and in 2018 the project recorded a calling storm petrel chick, the first known breeding of these birds on the Shiants. In 2018 Manx shearwaters were heard calling over the islands for the first time and it is hoped this species will also colonise the islands as a breeding species in the coming years.

Seabirds, land birds, vegetation and invertebrates were carefully monitored at the Shiants prior to the rat eradication operation and in the three following years to measure the effect on the ecosystem as a whole. This research work detected a significant increase in puffin breeding success after the rat removal along with increases in the populations of several passerine bird species and insect groups following the rat eradication.

Seabirds are long lived and take several years to reach maturity so whilst the project measured increases in seabird breeding success it will be another five to ten years or more before increases in the size of the seabird colonies at the Shiants are seen. However, the early signs are very positive.

Find out more about the project

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Black rats in the UK

The decline of black rats, which are not native to the UK, can be attributed to the arrival of brown rats which are larger and can outcompete them. Since the eradication of black rats from Lundy, there were claims that the Shiant Isles had the only remaining UK population. This is not the case.

Although black rats are rare in the UK, evidence demonstrates that populations 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.

Globally, black rats are invasive and 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 common in large areas of the world where it has been introduced and successfully colonised.

A legacy

As well as bringing Manx shearwaters and storm petrels to the Shiant Isles, this project also aimed to build UK expertise in island restoration, particularly biosecurity, to minimise the risk of future accidental introductions of invasive species to seabird islands. As part of this work, best practice guidance and training courses on biosecurity for seabird islands were developed at the Shiants. The biosecurity measures for the Shiants were promoted to island visitors and boat operators to ensure they remain rat free. The project has paved the way for future island restoration projects to take place around Scotland and help the internationally important seabird populations.

Scotland's seabirds and the Shiant Isles

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 classified as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the EU Wild Birds Directive.

In the seas around the UK, breeding seabird populations are not considered to be in good condition. In more than a third of species, breeding abundance is 20-30 per cent lower than in the 1990s. There have also been frequent widespread breeding failures in recent years in up to a third of breeding seabird species. Lower availability of small fish, on which the seabirds feed, has been largely responsible. Climate change is likely to be driving these reductions in food availability, but impacts from human activities cannot be ruled out. Scotland and the UK have a global responsibility for these species; 80 per cent of the world's Manx shearwaters breed around UK 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 black rats, can have significant impacts on seabird species' ability to breed and in many cases make islands uninhabitable for seabirds. The project partners are committed to doing everything they can to protect and restore seabird populations and this project is part of that commitment.

Prior to the project beginning at the peak of the breeding season the Shiant Isles were 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. It is hoped that many more will be able to breed successfully here following the islands' restoration.

One of the most important seabird sites in Europe

One of the most important seabird sites in Europe and the second largest puffin colony in Scotland after St Kilda.

During the breeding season the Shiant Isles are home tens of thousands of seabirds. A full colony count in 2015 estimated that there were:

  • 64,695 occupied puffin burrows (10 per cent of the UK breeding population)
  • 9,054 guillemots
  • 8,029 razorbills (7 per cent of the UK breeding population)
  • 512 pairs of shags
  • 1,506 pairs of fulmar
  • 1,075 pairs of kittiwakes
  • Plus four species of gulls and around 40 pairs of great skua (Bonxie)

Making the SPA a better place for breeding seabirds

The Shiant Isles are one of the most important seabird breeding sites in Europe and are classified as a Special Protection Area (SPA) under the EU Wild Birds Directive. The most recent assessment in 2015 has shown that some seabird species on the Shiants are in unfavourable condition. This includes shag and guillemot as well as some cliff nesting species such as kittiwake and fulmar. There is also evidence that suggests the puffin colony used to be more extensive.

It is likely that black rat predation led to the loss of breeding storm petrels and Manx shearwaters from the islands and added to other pressures on breeding seabirds such as pollution and food shortages. By eradicating black rats and improving biosecurity, this project has removed this pressure on vulnerable seabirds, and allowed storm petrels to return to the Shiants. The Shiants are now a much safer place for seabirds, ensuring that the islands continue to be a safe place for them to breed and successfully raise chicks.

Keep the Shiants and other seabird islands special

Following the eradication, the Shiants are being monitored and protected to keep them free of rats and other rodents.

Taking basic biosecurity measures can ensure that rats don't reach the islands again. If you are visiting the Shiants please follow these five points:

  1. Pack food on the day that you travel to the Shiants
  2. Store food in mammal-proof containers
  3. Check your baggage/hold/bilges for signs of mammals
  4. Rats are good swimmers: if you see a rat on your vessel don't push it overboard, and don't land at the Shiants
  5. Report any suspected sightings of rats or sign of rats, or other ground mammals, on the islands to the RSPB Scotland Western Isles Office or the SNH Stornoway Office.

The project has produced a leaflet and a biosecurity manual.

For more information on biosecurity contact:

  • RSPB Scotland Western Isles Office
    Talla na Mara Pairc Niseaboist,
    Isle of Harris,
    HS3 3AE
    01859 550280
  • SNH Stornoway Office
    32 Francis Street,
    Isle of Lewis,
    HS1 2ND
    01851 705 258

For information on visiting the Shiants go to https://www.shiantisles.net/ or contact tom@shiantisles.net

The future

Now that black rats have been successfully removed from the Shiants, the future challenge is to keep these islands free of rats and other rodents in perpetuity. Following the completion of the project, the partners have committed to continue to work together to carry out regular biosecurity monitoring and to promote biosecurity measures to island visitors to ensure that rats do not reach the Shiants again. An incursion response team has been established so that if rodents are detected, they can be removed quickly before a population becomes re-established. Annual monitoring will also be undertaken to document the recovery of key seabird species and colonisation of the islands by storm petrels. This work will be supported by the Shiants Auk Ringing Group which has been studying seabirds at the islands since the 1970s.

A biosecurity audit of the UK wide network of Seabird Special Protection Areas (SPAs) that was carried out as part of this project identified that there was a lack of awareness around biosecurity. The information from this work and the momentum gained through biosecurity training events held during the project helped to inform the development of a UK wide Biosecurity for LIFE project which started in August 2018.

Funding the project

This project cost more than £1 million. Around half was funded through the EU LIFE+ programme. SNH also provided £200,000 for the project. The remainder was funded through donations.

Our partners

We spend 90% of net income on conservation