The largest rat eradication programme in history is to begin on a remote UK island, in a bid to save millions of seabirds from these invasive predators.
Brown rats reached the island of South Georgia, in the South Atlantic Ocean, around 200 years ago, transported on sealing and whaling ships. Since then, the rodents have wreaked havoc on the island’s bird life, eating the eggs and chicks of ground-nesting seabirds and driving the endemic South Georgia pipit towards extinction.
Largest ever rat eradication
The eradication programme will involve dropping poison bait from helicopters in an attempt to rid the island of rats. The first poison drops are about to begin, but will initially take place over a limited area to assess whether the techniques are working. If successful, the programme will then be extended to the whole island.
With 800 square kilometres to cover, this is the largest eradication programme ever attempted. However, scientists hope that it will clear South Georgia of rats within the next five years.
South Georgia’s birds to benefit
Once the rats are gone, tens of millions of seabirds could return to South Georgia each year to breed. According to Professor Tony Martin, the South Georgia Habitat Restoration Project Director, “The vast majority of birds that should be breeding on South Georgia have been displaced by the presence of rats. Rats have gone virtually everywhere except the very cold southern coast. We are looking to restore millions, possibly tens of millions of sea birds to the island.”
Species which will benefit from the rat eradication include the South Georgia pintail, a subspecies of yellow-billed pintail endemic to South Georgia, as well as seabirds such as Wilson’s storm-petrel and the white-chinned petrel.
Scientists are also confident that the programme will help save the South Georgia pipit from extinction. The world’s most southerly songbird, this endemic species has been lost from most of the main island and is now restricted largely to offshore islets.
Professor Tony Martin says, “The exciting thing for me about this is there are few things you can do to revert the impact of human activity on the planet but what we are going to be doing will reverse two centuries of human impacts on the island.”
Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author