- Sophie Thomas
Previously on Gough...
It’s hard now to believe that when scientists first wondered if mice could be behind the new wounds being seen on Tristan albatrosses it was genuinely a ground-breaking moment. At the time, mice were not routinely built in to island restoration projects as a species to be removed because they were not thought that much of a threat – at least, not to large seabirds. When video footage confirmed ornithologists’ fears, the immediate question was: What could be done about it? The largest island cleared of mice up to that point was about 700ha in size. Gough was ten times larger, with terrain almost impossible to traverse.
As investigations into the feasibility of eradicating the mice got underway, what was clear was that nothing other than the aerial distribution of bait – i.e. dropping cereal bait out of a helicopter – could possibly do the job. And as a result, that it would be prudent to keep safeguard populations of potentially at-risk species safely out of the way whilst this was happening. As feasibility was confirmed and planning progressed, it became increasingly clear that the South African weather station base in the south east of the island would be stretched to bursting point and that both helicopters and people would need somewhere else to stay whilst any mouse eradication operation was underway. It was also clear that removing the mice would be expensive – most likely prohibitively so, such that only one shot at it would be likely. Biosecurity arrangements for the island should be enhanced so as to decrease the risks of rodents ever reaching Gough again.
And so, rumbling on in the background, several auxiliary projects have been on the go. We have established that the moisture-sensitive bait, manufactured half a world away, could cope with the long trans-equatorial journey and still be in good condition by the time it reached Gough. We ascertained that, despite the plentiful food supplies (i.e. birds) underground in burrows, caves and lava tubes, mice would come to the surface to eat – and so would be expected to encounter bait and eat it. We determined that birds potentially at risk from the baiting operation adapt well to a temporary life inside shelters, where they can be protected. We have installed new waste management systems at the Base to minimise any risk that mice find alternative food at the waste outlet point – and hence would have no need to eat bait. We have carefully laid the ground for monitoring plants, invertebrates, land birds and seabirds so that we can document the impact of removing mice from Gough’s ecosystem. The list could go on.
During this time, we have transported almost 300 tonnes of equipment to Gough Island, all of it undergoing bespoke treatment to lower risks relating to biosecurity. We have taken out close to 35,000 screws and 500 rolls of toilet paper! We have chartered vessels ranging from tiny (17m length overall LOA) yachts to the massive ice-breaker S.A. Agulhas II (134.2m LOA) as well as four AS350-B3 Squirrel helicopters. We’ve recruited people from across four continents to do a myriad of jobs from providing veterinary expertise, to weather forecasting, to cooking for 50 people day in day out, and to flying helicopters. And we have worked tirelessly to raise the £10.5M it has all cost - though we do still have a funding gap.
For the RSPB at least, we have most definitely entered uncharted waters on this mission. It is difficult to know just how many people have helped along the way, but it is safe to say the thank you speech would bore even a hardened Oscars fan. Several thousand people have contributed – be it with time, money, or expertise – and we would like to say thank you to all of you.
This year the RSPB and its partners have attempted to eradicate the house mice on Gough and make it a seabird paradise once again. The project was originally scheduled to go ahead in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic meant the RSPB and the Tristan da Cunha government had to abandon these plans and airlift the team home. With the delays the project now has a significant funding deficit.
If you would like to help close this funding gap, you can donate directly to the restoration project at https://www.rspb.org.uk/join-and-donate/donate/appeals/gough-island/
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Acknowledgement The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (South Africa), the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, Island Conservation, Conservación de Islas, Manaaki Whenua - Landcare Research and BirdLife International. The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK Government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and other generous individuals and organisations.