Biosecurity training for new staff takes place in the beautiful Shiant Islands in April 2023. New Biosecurity for LIFE staff participate in training on the Shiants

Andy Tetlow: Biosecurity Officer

As the newest member of the Biosecurity for LIFE team I was fortunate enough to join Tom Churchyard, a biosecurity and seabird expert, RSPB area manager, and former project manager for Biosecurity for LIFE on a week long training session on Lewis and in the Shiants. This expedition had been organized by Tom and Angela Munn the current Biosecurity for LIFE Project Manager, so it was the perfect opportunity to relax and learn while everyone else handled the logistics!

The goal of Biosecurity for LIFE is to protect the fragile ecosystems of seabird islands around the UK by addressing biosecurity risks. One of the key strategies of this EU-funded project is to implement surveillance and monitoring of invasive species, such as rats and other rodents, that can cause significant damage to ecosystems if left unchecked. As part of our visit to the Shiants we would be checking on monitoring and surveillance stations to see if rodents are present on the island and learning from Tom about the subtle and not-so-subtle signs that can point to rodents being present.

The Shiants is a small island group located in the Minch, a strait in northwestern Scotland. The islands are an important breeding ground for seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, and razorbills, which makes it a critical site for conservation efforts. The islands owners had graciously allowed us the use of their very well-appointed bothy for the duration of the expedition and this was enthusiastically welcomed especially as the weather worsened throughout the trip.

Bothy 1

Our home for three nights and a very comfortable base-camp.

With the team gathered in Stornoway on Monday morning the weather was a bit blowy but was forecast to get worse throughout the week and so with the calm, assured guidance of Joe, our captain, we decided to make a run for it and see how we got on. Joe and his father Charles had previously worked with Tom and the project extensively and were old hands at getting into and out of the sometimes challenging landing areas.

Landing Area

The landing area looking towards Eilean Mhuire.

After a beautiful run across the team arrived and set up a base camp on the island, where we planned to spend 2 nights but ended up staying for 3 due to the winds and weather. Shortly after arriving we set out to inspect the easier-to-reach monitoring and surveillance stations, which are spread out across the northerly island (Garbh Eilean) and the southerly island (Eilean an Taighe). There are also additional stations set up on Eilean Mhuire just to the east, which we ended up visiting on our way back to Stornoway. The stations included bait stations and rodent motels that were set up in areas where they were most likely to detect any rodent activity

Finding the stations for the uninitiated seemed to be the hardest part though after some practice this got much easier. The process is to load the relevant station onto our GPS units, navigate to the location, and then open up the stations to inspect the bait blocks for evidence of chewing or teeth marks. After the status of the blocks has been confirmed you move on to the next station and repeat. A fairly easy task that is complicated by the strong winds and sometimes challenging terrain of the islands.

Angela and Andy 1

Angela (left) and Andy (right) check a monitoring station on Garbh Eilean.

These bait blocks are typically homemade mixtures of wax and cocoa powder that rodents find delectable and can’t resist taking a bite out of. Learning to recognize the sometimes subtle marks on these blocks is a skill that I have been learning from my very helpful and patient co-workers and having the opportunity to learn from Tom in the field proved very enlightening.

Andy and Tom Checking Stations

Andy (left) and Tom (right) checking monitoring stations.

After locating and monitoring all the stations we were relieved to report that there were no signs of rats or other rodents on the island. This was excellent news for the conservation efforts on the island, as rats and other rodents can cause significant damage to seabird populations and with breeding season approaching it was a great validation of all the efforts from the island owners, RSPB staff, our partner organizations, local communities and our wonderful local volunteers. It really takes a village to stop a rat and since joining this project the teamwork that everyone involved has shown has been inspiring.

The most memorable part of this expedition for myself was climbing through vacant puffin colonies (they had not yet arrived) enroute to check monitoring stations and imagining them bustling with the life that Biosecurity for LIFE seeks to preserve. It was an immensely satisfying trip and my thanks to Tom for being so generous with his time and knowledge, to Angela for arranging the whole thing, to the island owners for their hospitality, and to Joe and Charles for giving us so much practical guidance, advice and local history.

Bothy from Distance

The bothy from a distance while on Eilean an Taighe and looking towards Garbh Eilean.

Biosecurity for LIFE is funded by the EU LIFE Environmental Governance and Information fund [LIFE 17 GIE/UK/000572], with co-financing provided by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Natural England (NE), the Northern Ireland Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and contributions from the project partners.