Isles of Scilly rats to be wiped out to protect birds
Two entire populations of an animal which thrives on a pair of Westcountry islands are to be totally annihilated.
But before animal-lovers depart for the Scillies where the mass extermination is to take place, they might like to know that the creatures in question are brown rats which stand accused of threatening the future of several species of rare seabirds.
Added to that, the human inhabitants on one of the islands, St Agnes, have been consulted and they have given a unanimous go-ahead for the rat clearance on their remote homeland and the neighbouring isle of Gugh.
Conservationists have been celebrating after their proposed project secured £700,000 in funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the EU LIFE programme.
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The Scillonian archipelago plays host to breeding populations of 14 seabird species – which translates to approximately 20,000 birds. But for years one of the major threats to the mainly ground-nesting birds has been rat predation of eggs and chicks.
Among the project's aims are the protection and restoration of the seabird population on the islands, which declined by almost a quarter between 1983 and 2006.
England's only colony of storm petrels is said to be at risk from the rats, as is the local population of Manx shearwaters – for which the UK has a global responsibility.
Such birds are far outnumbered by the brown rats which, according to a feasibility study, have a total Scillonian population of more than 34,500.
Around 3,100 rats reside on St Agnes and Gugh, which happen to be close to the seabird breeding isle of Annet.
"The feasibility study showed that rats can swim across from St Agnes and Gugh to Annet," explained Julie Love, of the Isles of Scilly Trust. "They eat both the eggs and the fledglings – in fact rats are even known to eat the rare Scilly shrew."
David Mawer, the trust's senior conservation warden, added: "Seabirds already attract visitors to Scilly, and this project and the clever use of technology can reveal more of their fascinating lives, whilst leaving the seabirds free from unwanted disturbance."
The rat-removal operation will take place in winter months and use special bait stations to prevent poisoning of non-target species.
Tony Whitehead, of the RSPB which is involved in the project, told the Western Morning News: "It is worth bearing in mind that it's ten years this year since we removed rats from Lundy – with a resultant increase in seabird numbers. The Manx shearwater numbers there are now up by 250%.
"This is part of a global push to restore island seabird populations from the teeth of invasive species," he added.
Richard Bellamy, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund South West, said the nation had a "collective responsibility for the native wildlife on the Isles of Scilly."
HLF has awarded the project £269,100, alongside £460,255 from the EU Life fund, with further contributions from Isles of Scilly AONB Sustainable Development Fund, The Duchy of Cornwall, Isle of Scilly Wildlife Trust and Natural England.