A grey Atlantic sky and a scouring westerly, whipping up the waves. I’m waiting on St Mary’s Quay, Isles of Scilly, for the Spirit of St Agnes to take me out to the Western Isles by the Bishop Rock Lighthouse – last outpost of the British Isles. The Seabird Recovery Project have kindly invited me to take this trip, courtesy of Captain John Peacock, to see the special birds which inhabit these wild rocky waters west of Scilly, and to hear how their numbers are being increased through the rat-eradication programme.
Silver-grey cloud covered the normally blue Scilly sky as we travelled west across an indigo swell. About ten people were on board including Darren, the guide, and helpers, Lydia and Ed plus two dogs. A watery sun broke through the cloud as we left St Agnes. On the starboard side a long raft of shags was strung out over the waves like a slick of ink. They were staying together while feeding, arching forward to dive for fish from the surface.
Then a shout – puffins, skimming over the water like humming birds. Sometimes known as the sea parrot or little brother of the north (due to their monastic-style black caps), they breed in burrows on the uninhabited islands of the Scilly archipelago, making long foraging trips out to sea then returning to land with beaks full of sand eels and other small fish. It is hoped that puffins may start to nest in the abandoned rat tunnels on St Agnes and Gugh.
A porpoise broke the surface of the waves and was gone. We stared for ages at the spot it disappeared, but it didn’t show again. Great black-backed gulls rode the wind like fierce figureheads. They are scavengers and arch-predators, eating seabirds (including the lesser black-backed gull chicks), voles, fish and crustaceans.
The Bishop Rock Lighthouse, bleak and forbidding, stood sentinel nearby. It was built in 1858 after several failed attempts to create a structure capable of resisting these violent stormy waters four miles west of Scilly. We drew near to the uninhabited island of Rosevear – a desolate place bearing the ruins of the dwellings used by the men who built the Bishop Rock Lighthouse. Its granite sides, like a dragon turned to stone, warned of the indomitable rocks which lie beneath the surface in this area – the graveyard of many ships.
Then a sighting of two manx shearwater, stiff-winged, scything through the air at the stern of the boat over churning water, now a mix of turquoise and grey. This is one of the species whose numbers are increasing due to the Sea Bird Recovery Project. There are 150 pairs on the islands. They spend all day at sea feeding, leaving the chicks vulnerable to predators, and not returning to their nesting burrows till dark.
A gannet swooped in a sloping dive, washday-white feathers leaving suds on the surface. On a black rock, guillemots and razor bills were silhouetted like a row of sharp black teeth. An Atlantic grey seal ‘bottled’ out of the water cocooned in seaweed for extra buoyancy. It was a pale sea-biscuit colour indicating its youth.
Then a collective gasp as we saw a swift heading south – a quill-drawn hiroglyph on a parchment sky. This bird knows the language of air – the invisible lines of navigation, the shape of the wind, the pattern of the weather. Far below, a fulmar flew low over the waves. Albatross-like, it excretes excess salt through its large raised nasal tubes.
We didn’t see any storm petrels – they were far out at sea, only returning to land at night to avoid predation by gulls and skuas. They are tiny delicate birds, fast-flying and swallow-like – a species also benefiting from the efforts of the Sea Bird Recovery Project.
The trip was a fantastic experience and I feel privileged to have had such an insight into the airborne wildlife of the Atlantic west of Scilly. Thank you so much to the Sea Bird Recovery Project, Jaclyn Pearson, Capt John Peacock, Darren, Ed and Lydia for making me so welcome.
Jaclyn Pearson, of the Seabird Recovery Project, told me how it all started in October 2012 with the backing of Wildlife Management International and world experts. The plan was to eradicate rats from the habitats of the Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel colonies whose populations had declined by 25% over twenty years due to rats preying on fledgings. This is particularly important as there are only two populations of Manx Shearwaters in England – on Lundy and Scilly. The only colony of Storm Petrels is on the Isles of Scilly – therefore an internationally important site.
Ten years ago a similar rat eradication programme had taken place on Lundy and Manx Shearwaters increased by 250%. This gave the impetus to the Scilly project and by the end of November 2013 3,300 rats had been eradicated from St Agnes and Gugh – the most southerly and western islands of the UK. This was only possible with the help of the local community on the islands – the school children designed the logo and everyone pulled together to support the project. People were made aware of the significance of efficient waste-disposal. The tripper boats display a sticker asking people to ‘rat on a rat’ and report any sightings to the number shown, so involving holidaymakers as well. Boats are baited to prevent rats hitching a lift between islands.
The rat population was carefully targeted in order not to affect birds, rabbits and the unique Scilly shrew – the latter are insect-eaters and not tempted by the bait used for the rats. The bait was placed in agricultural pipes at 50 metre intervals. The rats had been preying on the Scilly shrew as well as birds so the project has resulted in an increase in its population too. There is ongoing surveillance of Agnes and Gugh and monitoring stations around the coast to confirm the absence of rats and, after two years of being rat-free, the project will have officially proved itself successful. There is a five-year plan to target the other inhabited islands of Scilly.