Plan to eradicate rats and ferrets in bid to save island’s seabirds

·3-min read
Puffins are under threat on Rathlin Island (Owen Humphreys/PA) (PA Wire)
Puffins are under threat on Rathlin Island (Owen Humphreys/PA) (PA Wire)

A new five-year project has been announced to boost the seabird population on Rathlin Island off the Northern Ireland coast.

The island is renowned locally for the chance of spotting puffins.

It has been designated as a Special Protection Area and is known as a haven for wildlife and is home to the region’s largest seabird colony, and a significant breeding site in both the UK and Ireland.

However, the seabird population has dropped, including puffins by over 50%, in recent years due to predators such as rats and ferrets.

Rats are thought to have come to the island via boats, including from shipwrecks, while ferrets were introduced to manage rabbits but escaped and bred.

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The £4.5m Rathlin Acting For Tomorrow (RAFT) restoration project aims to eradicate rats and ferrets on the island to boost 25 bird species.

It is a five-year partnership project which involves EU-LIFE, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), with contributions from RSPB NI, Rathlin Development and Community Association (RDCA) and Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust (CCGHT).

Claire Barnett, area manager for the RSPB who leads the RAFT project, said the aim is to cremove all the ferrets and rats from the island..

“Puffins have declined by over 50%, they are classified as vulnerable, near to extinction, morally our obligation is to try and do everything we can to save nesting grounds for those beautiful iconic birds,” she told the PA news agency.

“We’re going to completely remove all of the ferrets and all of the rats from the island. We know these are invasives, non-native ground predators for our seabirds and other wildlife on the island, and they are having a colossal impact, so by removing these species it will in turn do great things for our seabird population.”

The project comes after similar moves in other parts of the world, including on the Isles of Scilly and Lundy Island.

Ms Barnett said the project is challenging because it is on an inhabited island but they are confident it will be successful.

Marina McMullan, who works with the Rathlin Development and Community Association, welcomed the project.

“I think it is a terrific project, we’re very lucky to get the funding that we have through a lot of hard work through our community association, through the RSPB and through the different organisations that we have been working with for the last number of years,” she said.

“The ferret population decimated our domestic animals, hens and chickens. Most households across the years would have had them, and our seabird centre. Those birds have been decimated, especially the ground birds, corncrakes and any small nesting bird like that. They came in here approximately 35 years ago, so we’re hoping through this scheme to be able to sort that out.

“And rats are a pest. You have to be very careful. It’s worked in the Scilly Isles and it’s worked in New Zealand so hopefully it will here too.”

She said she hoped increasing the seabird population will also attract more tourists to the island.

“Our corncrakes increased in numbers in recent years and that increased our visitors. That has been tremendous, we depend on tourists for six-seven months of the good weather, especially for employment for our young people.

“There has been a lot of hard work behind the scenes so this is richly deserved, hopefully in a few years the scheme will be going well.”

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