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A light at the end of the burrow?

Last modified: 30 July 2013

Manx shearwater skimming the waves

Image: Steve Round

“Within a generation, island seabird colonies in south west England could be thriving and free from the threat of rats”. That’s the view of conservationists this week as they reveal the amazing results of the Seabird Recovery Project on Lundy ten years after the project started, and embark on a similar major new project to eradicate rats that threaten burrow nesting seabirds on St Agnes and Gugh on the Isles of Scilly.

Survey teams from RSPB  – with funding from The Landmark Trust, The National Trust and Natural England – returned to Lundy this spring and found a tenfold increase in Manx shearwater numbers since the rat removal operation a decade ago.

Helen Booker, RSPB Senior Conservation Officer in the South West said: “This is such an exciting result, better than we expected, and the rate of increase is an indication of just how important rat free islands like Lundy are as breeding site for seabirds”

The Lundy Seabird Recovery Project was a partnership initiated in 2003 between English Nature (now Natural England), RSPB, National Trust and Landmark Trust. The aim of the project was to recover the Manx shearwater population, which was then at a very low level with around just 300 breeding pairs. Ten years on, there are over 3,000 pairs.

Puffin numbers have also increased from 5 to 80 birds and guillemots, razorbills and shags have also seen substantial increases. Anecdotally, other species such as pygmy shrew and wheatear are also more numerous.

Derek Green, Lundy General Manager said: “We are delighted with this result which is showing benefits for a range of species on the island and shows just how much can be achieved. Lundy has been a wildlife haven for many years, although rats were always a problem we had to live with.

Their removal has transformed the island for both wildlife and visitors alike, and we’re watching with great anticipation and excitement as the cliffs and slopes of Lundy fill with the eerie calls of thousands of birds once again. “

Dr. David J. Bullock, Head of Nature Conservation for the National Trust said “Once the rats had gone from Lundy, the number of pairs of shearwaters on Lundy went from 100s to 1000s in matter of a few years which is outstanding news.

“Such a rapid recovery is unlikely to have been due to "home bred" birds. Shearwaters from other colonies must have settled to breed on the island. We do not know where these birds came from, but there is a massive shearwater colony on the islands off Pembrokeshire in Wales. So was Lundy repopulated in part by the Welsh?"

The striking results from Lundy are an indication of what can be expected a couple of hundred miles to the south west as the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project gets underway this summer.

This ambitious project seeks to also secure a legacy for similar seabirds and the Scilly shrew,  as well as the community that lives and works not just on the islands of St Agnes and Gugh, but across the Isles of Scilly. 

The Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project, now the largest community-based island restoration project of its kind in the world, will provide a raft of benefits in the islands for the 25 years of the project’s life, and beyond.  It is managed by a coalition of groups including RSPB, Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, Natural England, Duchy of Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) partnership and a representative from the islands of St Agnes and Gugh, with support from the Isles of Scilly Bird Group. 

Jaclyn Pearson, Project Manager for the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project said: “Lundy has pioneered this type of project in the UK and it demonstrates just what devastating effects the rats were having on the island’s wildlife. Lundy is now the most important place in England for Manx shearwater, leaving the Isles of Scilly in its wake. This really has thrown down the gauntlet and in years to come it will be very exciting seeing the changes here.”

David Appleton of Natural England, who has been involved in both these projects, said: “Following Lundy’s example, in the 25 year lifetime of the Isles of Scilly project we can only imagine what the population of Manx shearwater and storm petrel will be in the South West of England.”

The first phase lasts five years and represents a significant investment of time and money.  The funding has come mainly from the EU LIFE fund for environmental work – a dedicated pot that makes up just a fraction of a percentage of the EU budget – and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) which aims to sustain and transform a wide range of heritage for present and future generations to take part in, learn from and enjoy.

Alongside the removal work, the project will also work with residents and visitors to highlight the importance of the islands for seabirds.

Darren Mason, a volunteer with the Isles of Scilly Seabird Recovery Project, is already working alongside local businesses, telling people about the important seabirds, the threats they face and what we can do to help. “Our seabirds are amazing, long-lived birds but species like the Manx shearwater and storm petrel are particularly vulnerable as they nest in burrows and crevices where rats like to forage.  It is amazing to think that the storm petrel is a relative of the albatross, as they weigh the same as a few coins. I hope we will soon hear the delightful “purring” of these tiny ocean wanderers from many more places in the future as the result of the project.”

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