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South Georgia Pipit returning as final phase of rat eradication begins

An 18-strong international team has recently departed for the remote British Overseas Territory of South Georgia to begin the final phase of the world’s largest rodent eradication project undertaken by UK charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust. Known collectively as ‘Team Rat’, the team’s departure for South Georgia on Sunday 18 January has coincided with news of the discovery of a nest of five South Georgia Pipit chicks in an area overrun with rats before being baited by the Trust in 2013. The South Georgia Pipit is the world’s most southerly songbird, only found on South Georgia. Its numbers had been decimated by the invasive rat populations on the island and its survival as a species was under threat before the eradication work began.

South Georgia Pipit, the only song bird in Antarctica, and South Georgia's only passerine (© Ewan Edwards)

The discovery of the pipit nest was made at Schlieper Bay near the western end of the island. It was found by a former member of ‘Team Rat’, Sally Poncet, an expert on South Georgia’s wildlife and this year a recipient of the Polar Medal in recognition of service to the United Kingdom in the field of polar research. Poncet was a member of Team Rat during its Phase 1 operations. She discovered the nest while on a Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris expedition (in collaboration with the Government of South Georgia) to survey Wandering Albatrosses.

Alison Neil, Chief Executive of South Georgia Heritage Trust says, “The discovery of pipit chicks is thrilling news and shows the rapid beneficial effect of the Habitat Restoration Project on this threatened species. People had spotted pipits exhibiting breeding behaviour following the baiting work, but this is the first firm proof that they are nesting in areas from which they were previously excluded by rodents. Pipits cannot breed when rats are present, so this discovery is confirmation that birds are quickly responding to their absence. We are confident that when South Georgia is once again free of rodents, it will regain its former status as home to the greatest concentration of seabirds in the world.”

The Trust’s ambitious £7.5 million Habitat Restoration Project aims to reverse the ecological destruction wrought by invasive rodents which were inadvertently brought to this wildlife oasis on sealing, whaling and other ships over the past 200 years. More recently, climate change has been causing the retreat of the island’s glaciers, allowing the rats to access new areas of the island and gain an ever stronger foothold on South Georgia.

A successful trial phase in 2011, followed by a second phase conducted in 2013, show every sign of having eliminated rats from almost two-thirds of South Georgia. This project is already five times larger than any other rodent eradication attempted worldwide.

On arrival in South Georgia, the team will fly fuel drums and bait from the helideck of the RRS Ernest Shackleton to 7 or 8 separate forward operating bases on the south-east coast of the island. Once aerial baiting commences, GPS tracking systems will be used to keep an accurate record of bait coverage. The objective is to spread 95 tonnes of bait by helicopter over an area of 364 square kilometres, including a 227km stretch of sinuous coastline.

The previous phase saw 183 tonnes of toxic pellets distributed by helicopter across the island to reach every rodent territory from sea level to mountain top

The three month field operation between January and the end of April will involve some 450 flying hours, using 450 drums of fuel to keep the helicopters in the skies above South Georgia.

The challenge is to complete the baiting of the entire island during the brief sub-Antarctic summer months and this will be followed by two further years of monitoring by the South Georgia Heritage Trust and the South Georgia Government. Assuming no signs of rodents have been discovered by 2017, South Georgia will be declared free of rodents for the first time since humans first came to the island.

The Habitat Restoration Project has been funded by donations raised by SGHT and its US counterpart Friends of South Georgia Island (FOSGI), which have together so far raised some £6.6 million ($10.6 million) of the £7.5 million ($12 million) needed to complete the eradication project.

Financial support has come from UK, US and Norwegian Trusts and Foundations, from individual supporters including thousands of cruise ship passengers and the tour operators they travel with, and through in-kind donations from companies such as Bell Labs (USA) and ARCO (UK) who supply bait and PPE respectively. The project has also received a grant of £250,000 from the UK Government (DEFRA), £253,000 from the Darwin Initiative and most recently in December 2014.

 

South Georgia Heritage Trust
29 January 2015

 

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