My introduction to the Biosecurity for LIFE project was during annual seabird monitoring visits to the Shiants, an uninhabited group of islands in the Western Isles, as a member of the Shiants Seabird Research Group. Several members of SSRG assisted the RSPB during the rat eradication during the winter of 2016 and SSRG continues to support the RSPB with the project by carrying out annual checks on the biosecurity boxes and playing tape lures to check for any signs of Storm Petrels, which will hopefully breed on the islands now the rats have gone. Having visited Shiants both before and after the eradication process, I witnessed the almost immediate impact of the eradication on some of the bird populations on these islands, particularly on the small passerine species including Wren, Rock Pipit and Wheatear, and became aware of the positive impact of such a programme.

I was very pleased, therefore, to meet members of the Biosecurity for LIFE team during an information session at Sumburgh Head shortly after I moved to Shetland in March 2021 and was keen to help in whatever role was needed to support this amazing project. My initial training on the project was provided by Holly Paget-Brown and, following my training, I became an RSPB volunteer with the project, responsible for monitoring the biosecurity boxes on Papa Stour, one of seven islands regularly monitored for invasive species in Shetland.

Papa Stour lies on the west side of Shetland with 22 miles of wonderful indented coastline with a mosaic of caves and inlets and is designated a Special Area of Conservation. The open scattald provides a perfect environment for ground nesting birds such as Ringed Plovers, Arctic Skuas and Arctic Terns and the rocky coastline and cliffs provides excellent breeding habitat for many species of sea birds. These include Fulmar, Shag, Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Razorbill, Great Black-backed Gull and Kittiwake, several of which are designated as amber or red in the latest Birds of Conservation Concern assessment in 2021. Although the resident human population comprises just a handful of people, there are several crofts on the island that are farmed by people who live on Shetland mainland and who regularly visit the island. There is a thriving Papa Stour History and Community Group involving residents, crofters and homeowners which was created to support and enhance all aspects of island life and has been instrumental in the purchase and ongoing restoration of the kirk on the island.

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The indented coastline of Papa Stour with the hills of Shetland mainland in the background. Photo by Bernard Siddle

Prior to taking on the RSPB volunteer role, I had only visited Papa Stour once and had already been fascinated by this gem of an island. It has a great sense of remoteness although lying only a few miles from the northern coast of the West mainland of Shetland from where the island is clearly visible. The Snolda provides a ferry service to the island five days a week, with a crossing of about 40 minutes. I have been lucky enough to see several species of cetacean during the crossings including Minke Whale, Common Dolphin and White-beaked Dolphin.

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The Snolda lying alongside the pier, Papa Stour. Photo by 
Bernard Siddle

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The ferry terminal building, Papa Stour. Photo by Bernard Siddle

I have visited Papa Stour almost every month since August 2022 when Holly and I visited the island together to check the biosecurity boxes. I have had the opportunity to see the island in all seasons, although I have generally aimed to time my visits for good weather and calm crossings! There are 13 biosecurity stations on Papa Stour of which I monitor nine with the remaining four being monitored by residents on the island. These nine stations are mainly around the pier area and along the beaches in the south-east of the island (on Kirk Sand and around Fore Wick). These are the areas which are most accessible to rats since the most likely route for a rat to get onto Papa Stour would be from a boat. My role is to check the wax blocks in each of these boxes, looking for signs of rodent bites and ensuring that the boxes are in good condition. I ensure that the wax blocks are in a good state to attract a passing rat, changing them when necessary and ensuring that boxes are clear of vegetation. The information is submitted to the project through uploading the data collected at each visit via an app which makes the recording very straightforward.

Information on the Biosecurity for LIFE project is displayed on posters both on the Snolda and in the ferry terminal buildings at West Burrafirth and Papa Stour, advising on the dangers of invasive mammals and the steps to be taken to avoid an incursion.

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Checking the wax block in one of the biosecurity boxes by the old pier. Photo by 
Bernard Siddle

The first time I found tooth marks on one of the blocks was a heart stopping moment but, by measuring the size of the marks and the position of the marks around the block (and checking with Holly) I was reassured that these were mouse marks rather than evidence of a rat. Mice are known to be present on Papa Stour and marks of these rodents are found from time to time. I have placed a camera trap near one of the boxes where mouse marks have been found and caught footage of the culprit.

In addition to my visits to Papa Stour, I have helped Holly to prepare the equipment that would be needed for an incursion response should there be signs of an invasive rodent species on any of the seven islands currently monitored for invasive species on Shetland and have recently helped to monitor a possible incursion on one of the other protected islands in Shetland.

Involvement in this project has enabled me to feel that I am contributing to the survival of the globally important seabird populations on Shetland. Prevention of the introduction of invasive species seems to be one of the most effective ways to safeguard seabird populations and one of the simplest ways to be involved. Involvement in the project has also given me the opportunity to visit one of the smaller Shetland islands on a regular basis enabling me to get to know this island. My partner has accompanied me on these visits and we have also made a useful contribution to the island through collecting bruck (the Shetland word for rubbish) on the beaches. We have met some of the locals and learned a lot about the island and its way of life. I am looking forward to continuing my involvement with the project and exploring the island further.