Sugar-free! Gluten-free! Wheat-free! We are used to coming across such claims on our food products, but how would you feel if you picked up a block of cheese in the supermarket today and it read ‘Now, Rat-Free!’ It certainly isn’t something you would expect, in fact, the idea that most things should be rat free is kind of a given. In addition, it is perhaps not the best bit of advertising we could think of. Imagine if you were looking for somewhere to holiday, looking for a fabulous hotel that was advertising swimming pools, spas and massages and then you come across one that says: Come to our hotel! Its spider, cockroach and rat free! I think most of us would run a mile, after all, they should be rat-free at the very least! To some however, the declaration that a place is rat-free is very appealing indeed. So, where has this rat-free phrase come from? The Isles of Scilly.
As we know, rats can be a problem in many ways, but on Scilly, they were beginning to threaten the important breeding seabird populations. Now, on two of the Isles, St Agnes and Gugh, bird populations are showing signs of steady recovery. After 25 years of constant declines in breeding populations, due to losses of chicks and eggs, work to eradicate the invasive brown rat has proven successful. That’s right! St Agnes and Gugh are rat-free! Rats, are perhaps one of our most stigmatised species and though they may argue this is highly unfair, even they would have to admit that their history is not exactly rosy. Wiping out ground nesting bird populations in many countries over the years and of course, carrying those devilish little plague ridden fleas. Still, forgive and forget eh? After all, the incidence of mass plague in the UK was in the 1600s! True, but those European storm-petrels and Manx Shearwaters may not be so keen to forgive. Both have suffered huge population declines since the 1980s and all at the hands of the brown rat. But how did these rats get there? Did they swim? Fly? Canoe? Catapult? I think you have probably guessed that it was by the usual method, these brown rats came on ships. During the 18th century several shipwrecks on the island introduced populations of brown rats and they grew so large that it was not long before they began to clear the Islands of their seabirds.
Something had to be done and in 2013, the wheels were set in motion. A 6 month project, lead by over 30 local volunteers and conservationists began to monitor brown rat movements on the Island and following the collection of these data, baiting and poisoning programs were set up. Following this, sightings of rats seemed to drop off entirely, with not a single brown rat having been seen since November 2013. However, rats as we know are quite tricky to control, but after another inspection at the beginning of 2016, which lasted an entire month, the two islands are now officially rat-free. Although the idea of poisoning and eradicating rats is unpleasant, it has had its benefits, with both Manx shearwaters and European storm petrels once again beginning to breed successfully on the Islands. Indeed, in the last two years, more than 40 chicks have been recorded on the Islands.
The Scilly Isles are home to important breeding colonises of seabirds and their protection is vital both for the survival of their species and in order to maintain a habitat that can sustain a healthy number of seabirds. So, though reading rat free on your next batch of eggs might not seem all that appealing, having two rat-free islands definitely is, especially for our seabirds.
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