Updated: Nov 9, 2018
What do you have when you get 2 Englishmen, 2 kiwis and an Irishman walking onto a South African icebreaker in Cape Town?
Sounds like a joke but in reality it was the start of the planning trip for the Gough Island Mouse eradication.
Every year a team of RSPB conservationists specialising in seabirds spends a year on the remote Gough Island. After 12 months a new team of three (known as the Overwintering Team) make the journey to Gough on the Agulhas II. The new team spend two weeks being inducted to island life before their predecessors board the ship to return home. This short handover is known to all involved as ‘The Takeover’. As a partner working with Island Conservation and involved in planning the 2020 operation I, along with four others, are lucky enough to join this year’s takeover.
John Kelly, the Project Manager for the Gough Island Restoration has selected our team to carry out a specific range of tasks needed for the planning of the eradication scheduled for June 2020:
Dickie Hall is team leader and is looking at the logistics of setting up a camp for approximately 35 people who will be on island during the operation in 2020.
Richard Switzer is an aviculturist whose job it is to come up with a plan for holding the Gough buntings and Gough moorhens for the duration of the operation and slightly beyond, which could be up to 6 months.
John Houston, a civil engineer from Northern Ireland is tasked with checking the suitability of the proposed area to setup the facilities needed for the operation. This is crucial work for the safety of our team and effectiveness of our base.
Davin Mudford is our Chief Pilot for the operation, who along with two other kiwi pilots have the job of making sure the bait is applied properly. Davin’s company, Heli A1 based in New Zealand is working with South Africa’s Aeronautic Solutions who are supplying the four helicopters for the operation. This trip gives Davin a chance to look at the island and to input into the planning, location of chopper storage etc.
I’m the final member of the team, Pete McClelland. In partnership with Island Conservation, I provide operational technical advice for the project, bait transport and storage, loading site set ups and general operational planning.
After spending a week in various meetings in Johannesburg and Cape Town, the team boarded the South African icebreaker the S.A. Agulhas II on the 6th of August to head to Gough Island. After 5 days at sea, we called at Tristan, the main island of the Tristan da Cunha island group, on the way to Gough. This was a wonderful bonus for me. Tristan is a beautiful and charming place that most people have heard about, but few people know just where it is, and only a fraction of those will ever get to see it.
Our team stayed on Tristan whilst the ship continued on to drop research teams at nearby Nightingale and Inaccessible islands. This allowed some of us to have a quick round of golf on one the worlds most isolated, and some would say challenging, courses while the others had a walk around the settlement and adjoining volcanic cone which caused the islands evacuation in 1961.
Two days were spent unloading supplies and passengers travelling back to Tristan. Supplies and equipment for Tristan, along with some personnel, are unloaded by craning them from the ship on to one of two barges the islanders use just for this purpose. People file in turn into a small passenger lift, known as “The Box”, are craned over the side and then lowered on to the barge. Straight forward when the sea’s flat but more interesting when the barge is bouncing up and down.
Unfortunately, before unloading was completed, the weather turned rough preventing the use of the barges. After waiting a day with no sign of a break the ship headed for Gough, arriving 36 hours later. Rough seas on the south side of the island closest to the base, meant the ship moved to the more sheltered north side and most of the team, including the new Overwintering Team and a maintenance team, were flown ashore by helicopter.
Three of the mouse team, as we are now known, stayed on board for an extra day to observe unloading operations, helping us develop the loading and unloading plan for the operation. This is a crucial component as it needs to be completed quickly, efficiently and safely to make use of any weather window available. Every day the ship has to stay around waiting to unload costs money.
The team are now safely ashore and busy with their assigned tasks before we leave Gough again in a couple of weeks.
About Pete McCleeland
Pete is a specialist in project management and technical advice for invasive animal eradications, with a focus on rodent eradications. Working around the world, Pete has been a part of eradications in The USA- Aleutians (Rat Island); Australia- Macquarie, Big Green Island and Lord Howe Island - ongoing, the Pacific- Palmyra and Wake Islands, Lehua- Hawaii; Canada - Haida Gwaii; Europe - the Azores and Sardinia.
The Gough Island Restoration Programme is being carried out by the RSPB in partnership with Tristan da Cunha, BirdLife South Africa, the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa, Island Conservation, BirdLife International, the Percy Fitzpatrick Institute, the Zoological Society of London, the World Land Trust, the Royal Zoological Society of London, the Durrell Institute and the Rothschild Foundation.
The programme is part-funded by the RSPB, the UK government, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, John Ellerman Foundation, Ludwick Family Foundation, Jephcott Charitable Trust and other generous individuals and organisations.