Belfast Telegraph

Rathlin Island seeks pied piper to drive out rats

The RSPB is poised to declare war on the rats that are decimating bird populations on Rathlin Island. The island is in need of a pied piper to drive out not only rats, but up to 80 golden ferrets that were introduced to hunt rabbits — and now pose a problem themselves.

Not only do the rats and ferrets threaten ground-nesting birds such as lapwings and the corncrakes the RSPB is hoping to lure back to the island, but they carry disease and make it impossible for islanders to keep free range poultry.

Failing any approaches from mysterious pipers, the RSPB is considering launching a plan to eradicate the rats and ferrets.

The group is hoping to mimic the success of a similar rat eradication programme on the Bristol Channel island of Lundy. Within a year of the programme launch, rare Manx shearwaters were nesting on the island for the first time in 40 years.

The RSPB is hoping these long-living sea voyagers can be lured back to Rathlin once again to nest in their burrows.

Driving out the rats could also attract the famous puffins back up to the clifftops round the West Lighthouse to nest.

“No one has free range chickens on Rathlin because of these rats and ferrets,” RSPB NI director Dr James Robinson said. “We’re also looking at the tourism benefits of getting corncrakes back onto the island, and this would help.

“The puffins used to nest on top of the cliffs where visitors can get a better view of them — they’re not there anymore |because of these rats. We had a research project a few years ago looking at the impact they have on ground-nesting birds.

“The report suggested that the non-native predators were

having an impact on these birds and we should consider eradication if we wanted to improve our conservation measures.

“The ferrets were introduced, we think, due to a belief that rabbits were causing a problem on the island, and they were |introduced to get rid of the |rabbits.

“The rats have probably been on the island for some time, coming in on boats.”

The RSPB believes the best way to wipe out the invaders would be to use poisoned bait, but the exact method will depend on the experts they hire who will come up with the plan and carry out the work.

It will also be necessary to take measures to prevent more rats from coming in on boats, including bait stations around food supplies.

“We wouldn’t even consider doing it unless the islanders were well on board.

“At the moment we are in a consultation process asking them what they think,” Dr Robinson said.

“Rats carry leptospirosis and the ferrets carry bovine TB, so they are not great creatures to have on the island for people and animals alike — this plan could benefit both.

“The next stage will be looking to see whether it’s all feasible,” he added. “It would be a very short-term project with immediate conservation benefits.”

Background

Brown rats are the scourge of farms and towns. They are one of the most serious mammalian pests on the planet, spoiling grain and carrying disease, yet they remain one of the most successful. The secret of the brown rat's success lies in its opportunistic way of life and extraordinary ability to reproduce, with a pair multiplying to 200 in just one year. Living in dark, damp sewers and rubbish dumps does nothing for their reputation. Originating from Asia, brown rats went on to rapidly colonise Europe in the early 18th century.

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