New €5.3m plan aims to eradicate rats and ferrets from Rathlin Island

The five-year project hopes to boost the seabird population on the island

Thousands of seabirds inhabit the huge stacks on the western end of Rathlin Island. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Thousands of seabirds inhabit the huge stacks on the western end of Rathlin Island. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien


A new five-year project has been announced to boost the seabird population on Rathlin Island off the Northern Ireland coast.

The island is renowned locally for offering the chance to spot puffins.

It has been designated as a special protection area under an EU directive and is known as a haven for wildlife, including being home to a large seabird colony and significant breeding site.

However, the seabird population has dropped, including puffins by more than 50 per cent, in recent years due to predators such as rats and ferrets.

Rats are thought to have come to the island via boats, including from shipwrecks, while ferrets were introduced to manage rabbits but escaped and bred.

The £4.5 million (about €5.3 million) Rathlin Acting For Tomorrow (RAFT) restoration project aims to eradicate rats and ferrets on the island to boost 25 bird species.

It is a five-year partnership project which involves EU-LIFE, the UK National Lottery Heritage Fund, and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, with contributions from RSPB NI, Rathlin Development and Community Association (RDCA) and Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust.

Claire Barnett, area manager for the RSPB who leads the RAFT project, said the aim is to remove all the ferrets and rats from the island.

“Puffins have declined by over 50 per cent, they are classified as vulnerable, near to extinction, morally our obligation is to try and do everything we can to save nesting grounds for those beautiful iconic birds,” she told the PA news agency.

“We’re going to completely remove all of the ferrets and all of the rats from the island. We know these are invasives, non-native ground predators for our seabirds and other wildlife on the island, and they are having a colossal impact, so by removing these species it will in turn do great things for our seabird population.”

The project comes after similar moves in other parts of the world, including on the Isles of Scilly and Lundy Island.

Ms Barnett said the project is challenging because it is on an inhabited island, but they are confident it will be successful.

‘Terrific project’

Marina McMullan, who works with the RDCA, welcomed the project.

“I think it is a terrific project, we’re very lucky to get the funding that we have through a lot of hard work through our community association, through the RSPB and through the different organisations that we have been working with for the last number of years,” she said.

“The ferret population decimated our domestic animals, hens and chickens. Most households across the years would have had them, and our seabird centre. Those birds have been decimated, especially the ground birds, corncrakes and any small nesting bird like that. They [the ferrets] came in here approximately 35 years ago, so we’re hoping through this scheme to be able to sort that out.

“And rats are a pest. You have to be very careful. It’s worked in the Scilly Isles and it’s worked in New Zealand so hopefully it will here too.”

She said she hoped increasing the seabird population will also attract more tourists to the island.

“Our corncrakes increased in numbers in recent years and that increased our visitors. That has been tremendous, we depend on tourists for six-seven months of the good weather, especially for employment for our young people.

“There has been a lot of hard work behind the scenes so this is richly deserved, hopefully in a few years the scheme will be going well.” – PA