Gough Island restoration programme

Gough Island has been described as one of the most important seabird nesting sites in the world. But many of the birds which nest here are now under threat, including the Critically Endangered and iconic Tristan albatross – one of only three Critically Endangered British birds.

Gough Island Albatrosses

Overview

Part of the UK Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha, Gough Island is home to more than eight million breeding birds from at least 24 different species, including highly threatened species such as the Endangered Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross, Atlantic petrel and MacGillivray’s prion, and the Critically Endangered Gough bunting and Tristan albatross.

Mice were accidentally introduced by sailors to the remote Gough Island during the 19th century. These rodents colonised this World Heritage Site and learnt to exploit all available food sources on the island – including seabirds. Video cameras reveal how the mice eat the flesh of live seabird chicks – and, more recently, live adult birds too. Tristan albatross chicks weigh up to 10kg but the open wounds inflicted by the mice – who are a fraction of their size – frequently lead to chick deaths.

The situation was so severe that just 21% of Tristan albatross chicks survived to fledge during the 2017/18 breeding season. And for endangered burrow-nesting species breeding success has been recorded as low as 0%.

The RSPB and Tristan da Cunha developed an ambitious programme to save the Tristan albatross and other highly threatened species on Gough, such as MacGillivray’s prion and Atlantic petrel by removing the island’s mouse population. We attempted this in 2021 but, sadly, in early 2022 we learned that mice were still present on the island.

We know that the restoration attempt will provide a window of opportunity for Gough’s birds and some respite from heavy mouse predation pressure. With a breeding success of 63%, Atlantic petrels appear to have raised more than twice as many chicks in 2021 as in previous years in the near-absence of mice.

The RSPB remains resolute in its commitment to see Gough Island restored but it will be vital to understand why this first attempt was unsuccessful before any other attempt at removing the mice is made. This is likely to take some time.

Objectives

  • To prevent the extinction of the Critically Endgangered Tristan albatross. 
  • To restore the fortunes of Gough Island’s seabirds and ensure the island remains one of the world's most important seabird nesting sites, worthy of its World Heritage Site status.
  • To support Tristan da Cunha in ensuring the long-term future of this special island and its unique wildlife.

 

Planned Work

Our original plan was based on internationally-recognised best practice methods to restore island ecosystems damaged by invasive non-native species. We applied rodenticide bait administered in the form of cereal bait pellets across the island to remove the mice. The operation was logistically complex, largely because of the island’s remoteness. Gough is right in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, 1,550 miles (2,800 km) from the nearest city – Cape Town.

At the moment, we still believe this approach offers the best chance of successfully restoring Gough Island. We are now looking to understand what may need to be altered before another restoration attempt can be made.

Partners

It is only through close partnership working with Tristan da Cunha that the programme will be successful.

Carrying out the programme in partnership with the RSPB and Tristan da Cunha are the UK Government, BirdLife South Africa, the South African Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries, Island Conservation, BirdLife International, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research and Conservación de Islas.

 

Albatross display

Tristan albatrosses doing a courtship display

The Tristan albatross (Diomedea dabbenena) spends most of its life at sea, wandering over the Atlantic. These graceful birds only seek land when they mature at 5-7 years of age and it’s finally time to mate. Around 2,500 pairs of Tristan albatross return to Gough Island each summer to breed, performing an intimate courtship as can be seen in this video.

The birds then rear a single chick among the tussac grasses and tree ferns of Gough Island. But having evolved without land mammals, these birds lack the instinct to protect their offspring from the attacks of the mice on Gough. In 2014, fewer than 10% of breeding pairs successfully fledged a chick. If nothing changes, this magnificent albatross will go extinct.

Albatross displaying video screenshot

Download

Contacts

Coast on a stormy day

The Gough Island Team

GoughIsland@rspb.org.uk
Tagged with: Country: England Project status: Ongoing Project types: Site protection Project types: Species protection