Guest blog: In this week's blog we welcome Lisa Morgan, Head of Islands and Marine Conservation at the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales to talk about how they responded to a shipwreck on Skomer Island last December and the biosecurity risk this posed.
I woke on Wednesday morning to a message from the Coast guard. A 14m fishing boat (for scale - the same length and 1m narrower than the Skomer landing boat the Dale Queen) had hit a rock in the middle of the night, run aground and got wedged between Skomer and the Mew Stone on the island’s south coast. As the tide went out, she was left stricken but seeming intact on the stone slabs.
With the four-man crew safely rescued by the RNLI and unharmed, thoughts turned to the 3 tonnes of diesel fuel she had onboard. The coast guard plane was on scene by 10am to check for any pollution but all seemed secure, the aerial images showing no signs of a fuel leak or any spillage.
Whilst plans to retrieve the vessel were ongoing, I was flicking through our island Biosecurity plan. This 70-page document covers the islands of Skomer, Skokholm and Middleholm and details everything we do to keep our islands free of invasive non-native species (INNS) in particular rats, a species that could devastate a colony of burrow nesting seabirds like Puffins and Manx shearwaters. It contains instructions for how to move supplies safely to the island, how to conduct routine surveillance for invasive species and the information we give island visitors. But the bit I was looking for was the section on the immediate actions required in the event of a shipwreck or a vessel grounding on one of the islands. Of course, I knew the answer because I’d help to write and adapt the plan over recent years, but it had all been theoretical until now.
There was no doubt that a full incursion response was required, and we had 48 hours to make it happen. Skomer warden Leighton had come to the same conclusion. A shipwreck is considered the highest category of risk to our seabird islands and to do nothing was simply not an option. You only have to look at the sorry state of seabird islands around the world following accidental or deliberate introductions over hundreds of years, to see what was at stake with INNS still considered one of the greatest threats to seabird populations worldwide.
DAY 1 - Wednesday 7 December
By midday it had dawned that the next week of our lives was about to be very different than planned. A whirlwind of emails and phone calls followed, sorting out the logistics, boat transport, people power and kit. Time was of the essence and we had to get ourselves and everything we needed out to Skomer the next day. We also had to get Leighton back from Newbury to Pembrokeshire, buy food and provisions and arrange for deliveries the next day. A plan of sorts came together quickly with help and advice from many including Pembrokeshire County Council’s Emergency Planning team, the Coastguard, Biosecurity for LIFE and our immediate RSPB neighbours on Ramsey Island, not to mention our long-suffering partners.
DAY 2 – Thursday 8 December
I was in the supermarket at 7am and Leighton was on the M4. The plan was to meet at Martin’s Haven for a pick-up on the Dale Queen. Leighton arrived with just one rucksack, me with 5 bags of jumpers, blankets and food! First for a slight detour…the only place in Wales I knew that had the ready-made bait stations we needed in sufficient quantity was Ramsey Island, 6 miles up St Brides Bay. They had used the same kit in their rodent eradication project over 20 years ago and I knew they were stored in the barn on the island. So we went North up St Brides Bay into the hail to pick up Ramsey warden Nia from St Justinians. Not only had she agreed to loan us the RSPB kit but she also turned out in the freezing cold with her partner Chris to help us. After an hour of ferrying ‘dumpy’ bags of plastic pipes to the boat we were headed south back to Martin’s Haven, to pick up our volunteers for the afternoon; Mark Burton (Skomer MCZ and Dale Coastguard), Chris Taylor (ex-Skomer warden and PCNPA) and two of his volunteers Sally and Ken. It was 1pm and we knew we didn’t have a lot of light left. We used the island’s gator and brute force to transport everything we needed to the nearest site to the ship grounding on South plateau.
We then worked hard to lay out a grid of bait stations, simply 75cm long plastic pipes on wire legs, to hold the cereal-based poison bait blocks securely and keep them out of reach of birds and rabbits. One station was needed every 50 metres (so 4 per hectare) across an area extending in a 1000 metre circle with the location of the boat in the middle. Much of the area falls within the sea of course, but it left the whole of south plateau and Wick Valley to be covered. With the stations going out we had one rather large problem. We still didn’t have the necessary rat poison to make the grid live. Leighton and I are both trained in the safe handling and use of rodenticides, allowing us to purchase and deal with professional quantities of poison bait. We had been promised delivery before 10am but by 2pm it still hadn’t arrived and we were all getting nervous that our plan would fail. The Dale Queen was on standby to collect it from Martins Haven and luckily by 3pm the courier arrived at my house to be ambushed by my partner Dave, who was soon speeding the parcels over to Martins Haven and onto the boat.
It was getting dark when our volunteers were taken back ashore and the poison bait arrived. Leighton and I managed to get poison out into the stations nearest the coast and nearest the shipwreck site but by 5pm it was dark and we decided it was unsafe to continue. Less than 48 hours in we had got ourselves to Skomer set up a grid and got some of it baited, not bad for a first attempt in the middle of winter.
DAY 3 – Friday 9 December
We were on South Plateau at first light to check the bait stations we had set up last night and complete baiting the rest of the grid. It took all morning to apply the poison and also set up other surveillance stations and trail cameras. We also set surveillance stations with wax blocks around the farm buildings. With an hour for lunch, we were back out for the evening checks that had to be completed before dark. The whole grid had to be checked twice every day for five days, taking around 3 hours each time, and this became our routine from here on in.
DAY 4 – Saturday 10 December
We received an afternoon visit from the Biosecurity for LIFE funded conservation detection dog today. We are incredibly lucky that we now have two specially trained ‘sniffer’ dogs in the UK and one of them named ‘Jinx’ just happens to live on Ramsey with handler and Site Manager Greg. These dogs are able to detect rats, in fact the tiniest smell of a rat from great distances, and are a potential game changer for seabird Special Protection Areas in routine checks and incursion responses.
Jinx and Greg worked hard along the slopes above the site of the wreck, the dog on a long line, searching in burrows and under and over rocks, even in the iron age round house in Wick Valley. It seems very odd to see a dog running over the Puffin burrows at the Wick, but he is a small, light spaniel and able to leap across the fragile surface without causing any damage. The dog was happy that there were no rats here and our own poisoning and surveillance was pointing to the same conclusion. Greg and Jinx checked the farm buildings on the way back to the boat, also drawing a blank. Phew!
Biosecurity for LIFE Conservation Detection Dog Jinx helping the incursion response on Skomer. Credit: Lisa Morgan.
Day 5 – Day 6
For the next two days we stuck to the routine and it got colder. We had to wait for the sun to rise and melt the frost and ice on the slopes before it was safe for us to climb down to the bait stations near the sea. We were greeted each by thick frost and icy puddles. Moorey Mere and North Pond were frozen, the Teal standing on the ice as were our hands. We had very little time or daylight for general birding, a ghostly male Hen Harrier floating through the valley one of few bird highlights. The island is a beautiful but harsh place in a cold snap.
Day 7 – Tuesday 13 December
Thankfully, after the prescribed 5 days of poisoning we had no cause for concern. The only signs we had seen were from the resident wood mice leaving their small droppings in the bait stations and their teeth marks on the wax blocks. We were also seeing them on the trail camera images. Combined with the dog visit we were confident that no rats were present in the immediate area or around the buildings. The weather for the coming days was set to turn windy and from the North-east, so we had to get off today.
It was probably the coldest day so far, with the easterly wind building, my 6 layers were no match for the conditions. We worked fast to pack in the dark before heading out into an icy chill to collect in all the stations and poison for safe disposal. We didn’t want to risk leaving any out and them blowing away. We left out plastic bait boxes, pegged and weighted down containing only harmless wax blocks for checking throughout the rest of the winter.
The Lady Helen chugged around to collect us mid-afternoon, lights on in the gathering gloom. Leighton was straight into the car for his journey to North Wales, only a week later than planned and I headed home for a hot bath. It was almost as if nothing had ever happened.
We will endeavor to reach the island over the coming months, although the weather conditions will dictate how often this can happen and perhaps we will enlist the help of Jinx again after Christmas. This is the first time we have ever had to put our biosecurity plan into action and I hope we don’t have to do it again anytime soon. It was hard, cold work and incredibly difficult on Skomer’s fragile terrain, with limited daylight and only two staff available. But it was also a very valuable learning experience, with lots of problem solving along the way, all leading a better, fine-tuned plan for the future, learning that will assist seabird sites like ours across the UK, all of who would have to do what we did if faced with a similar situation.
Some will ask why did we bother? The answer is the 350,000 pairs of Manx Shearwaters and 39,000 Puffins that breed successfully on Skomer each year, because the island is rat free.
Update - Monday 30 January
We have been trying to get out to Skomer for nearly six weeks, to follow up the Biosecurity incursion work we carried out in December. Finally the wild and windy Atlantic weather pattern we’ve been stuck in shifted and sea conditions settled enough for us to make a day trip.
You’ll remember that a local fishing boat ran aground between the main island and the Mew Stone on the night of 7 December. Skomer Warden Leighton and I spent the following 6 days on the island carrying out our first ever rapid incursion response, an essential reaction to any shipwreck or probable rat sighting on Skomer or any other seabird Special Protection Area in the UK. It was a huge amount of work, but we have a plan for this very situation and we followed it to the best of our ability. There were brief moments when I considered ‘would we get away with it?’ by not intervening. But looking back now, despite the effort, the financial cost and the missed Christmas parties, I’m so glad we put the plan into practice. Our seabird populations are too important to leave things to chance, even if the likelihood of a rat coming ashore from this boat was slim.
In the weeks and months after an incident of this kind, routine surveillance is stepped up, just to be sure that nothing has been missed. Leighton and I left plastic bait boxes in the area of the wreck containing wax chew blocks, flavoured with cocoa. This is a non-lethal way of checking for the presence of rodents. They leave their droppings in the box and their teeth marks on the wax blocks so that we can check who’s been inside.
I was joined by our RSPB Ramsey neighbours, Greg (Site Manager), his Biosecurity for LIFE funded conservation detection dog Jinx, and Alys (the new Assistant Warden – congratulations Alys!), Dave from West Coast Birdwatching and Anna Sutcliffe, island friend and my actual next door neighbour.
Skomer team ready to carry out checks following the shipwreck. Credit: Lisa Morgan.
The island in January is eerily quiet, without the constant rebuke of the gull colony, although it was fantastic to be welcomed by the sound of excited Guillemots, back on their ledges for a few hours in the early morning.
After carrying the customary boxes and parcels up from the boat to the house in North Haven, we put Greg and Jinx straight to work, checking for rats around the building and garage. Jinx is trained only to detect rats and of course an invasion by these invasive non-native species (INNS) is always of major concern. Jinx was happy that there was nothing to report so we moved onto the farm, where the dog checked the garden, wood piles and compost bins whilst I checked the surveillance stations. The wax had been chewed by the resident bank voles and field mice, but nothing larger.
We then headed out to south plateau, the nearest land to the site of the ship grounding. Alys and I checked the surveillance stations and replenished the wax, whilst Jinx nimbly bounded over the burrows searching holes and crevices in the rocks. Only assistance and working dogs are allowed on Skomer, so it’s an unusual sight to see a spaniel bounding about the island, but he’s always under close control and he’s light enough not to collapse any burrows.
We were late back to the waiting Dale Sailing boat but I don’t think the crew minded too much. It was such a beautiful day and we made the most of the slow walk back through south stream and along Welsh way. Some teal, mallard, and wigeon came off the pond at Morrey Mere and the hardy robins, wrens, and blackbirds followed us along the trail, but otherwise the island was quiet and we left it again in peace.
So I’m pleased to report all is well although we will continue our routine surveillance for INNS as soon as the warden and his team are back on site in March.
Thanks again to the Biosecurity for LIFE team and to Jinx who definitely worked the hardest last Friday.