Remote island of South Georgia declared rat free after over 200 years

Eradication scheme to protect native birds began in 2011 and saw helicopters drop bait across 269,000 acres

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The remote island of South Georgia has been officially declared free of rats and mice after a £10 million (€11 million) eradication scheme to protect native birds.

The wildlife-rich UK overseas territory is free of invasive rodents - which have been arriving as stowaways since Captain Cook discovered the southern Atlantic Ocean island in 1775 - for the first time in more than 200 years.

Birds nesting on the ground or in burrows, whose eggs and chicks were preyed on by rats, are already benefiting from world’s largest island rodent eradication scheme, according to the South Georgia Heritage Trust.

Wandering Albatrosses on South Georgia. Photograph: Tony Martin/PA Wire
Wandering Albatrosses on South Georgia. Photograph: Tony Martin/PA Wire

The song of the South Georgia pipit is back and drowning out the grunts of elephant seals, and flocks of South Georgia pintail are being reported - good news for two species which are found nowhere else on Earth, the trust said.

The announcement by the Scottish-based charity that the island is rat-free comes at the end of a habitat restoration project the team began planning in 2008, to return the island to its natural state.

Since 2011 teams have braved hostile conditions, through rain, snow and extreme winds, to undertake three phases of dropping bait on vegetated areas where rodents are found, which are separated from each other by glaciers.

Three helicopters, including one that was once registered to Jackie Onassis, were used to drop bait from hoppers across 108,723 hectares (269,000 acres) of the island — a range eight times bigger than any other eradication area tackled anywhere in the world, the trust said.

A helicopter distributes bait over an ice cap in South Georgia. Photograph: Tony Martin/PA Wire
A helicopter distributes bait over an ice cap in South Georgia. Photograph: Tony Martin/PA Wire

This winter, an expedition team dubbed “Team Rat” surveyed the island to see if the baiting project had been successful.

More than 4,600 detection devices including chewsticks coated with peanut butter, tracking tunnels and camera traps were deployed and checked for signs of rat activity.

Three highly trained sniffer dogs - Wai, Will and Ahu, - and their two female handlers  walked hundreds of kilometres across the rugged terrain scouring for evidence of any rodents left alive.

Prof Mike Richardson, chairman of the project’s steering committee, said: “Over the last six months of work, not a single sign of a rodent has been found in the whole of the area we have baited.

The remote wildlife-rich island of South Georgia has been officially declared free of rats and mice. Photograph: Oliver Prince/PA Wire
The remote wildlife-rich island of South Georgia has been officially declared free of rats and mice. Photograph: Oliver Prince/PA Wire

“To the best of our knowledge this island is rodent-free for the first time in two and a half centuries.”

Efforts are under way to ensure good biosecurity on the island, to prevent the reintroduction of rodents from ships that visit the beautiful but remote island and its waters, which are home to penguins, seals and whales as well as rare seabirds and island birds.

There are 33 species of birds nesting on the island, with the eradication benefiting all of them, including species such as diving petrels.

It is hoped eradication efforts on other islands can learn from South Georgia’s success.

The South Georgia Heritage Trust and US-based counterpart the Friends of South Georgia Island raised £10 million for the project, securing support from individuals, foundations, businesses and governments, including £885,000 from the UK government. – PA

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