The tiny Shiant Isles, off the coast of northwest Scotland, are an important breeding habitat for thousands of seabirds protected under the EU Birds Directive, such as Atlantic puffins, razorbills, common guillemots, European shags, kittiwakes and others. It is no surprise therefore that it has been designated as a Natura 2000 site.
The islands, which are uninhabited, seem to be, at first glance, an unspoilt paradise – hosting great diversity of flowering plants and their associated invertebrate communities, beautiful song birds and even a pair of white-tailed eagles. However despite having plenty of suitable habitats, it seems all is not well. Some species like the storm petrels have not bred in the islands for a while. The simple fact is that rats have invaded the islands and, over the years, their predation on seabirds and chicks has had a significant impact.
The Shiant Isles Recovery Project, involving the British NGO RSPB, Scottish Natural Heritage and the owner of the area, has worked hard to eradicate the population of rats and protect the breeding habitat of the many thousands of seabirds that these islands support. With the help of a team of fifteen volunteers, the project staff implemented an ambitious rat eradication programme over the winter of 2015-16. The operation was entirely ground based, with the manual application of rodenticide across a grid of bait stations, covering all vegetated ground, and including near-vertical cliffs that were only accessible via support ropes.
The project was a resounding success. There have been no signs of rats on the island for 18 months after the eradication programme. Petrels are now being actively encouraged to return by playing their calls both out to sea, and from a network of speakers mimicking a colony. If a colony were to become established at a rat-free Shiants, then the future of these species would be more secure.
The project is also spreading the message about "biosecurity" - the process by which sensitive island habitats like those at the Shiants can be kept predator-free through the vigilance and cooperation of human visitors.
This project is an excellent example of meticulously planned conservation intervention, informed by robust preliminary research clarifying all possible threats and supported by detailed monitoring allowing the documentation of an impressive conservation gain: the successful and sustainable recovery of the breeding populations of over 150,000 pairs of seabirds, including some 63,000 pairs of puffins.