The last viable colony of black rats in Britain


The Shiant Isles in the Hebrides have the dubious distinction (as of 2015) of being home to what is probably the last viable colony of black rats in Britain, which has almost become extinct in the UK due principally to pressures from the also invasive brown rat.

The RSPB is current engaged in programme to to erradicte the black rat from the Shiant Isles, where some 3,600 live – the number increasing significantly in the months when more food is available (chicks and eggs). This will hopefully  encourage Manx shearwaters and storm petrels to breed on the Shiant Isles.

Charlie Elder sets out to find these unloved animals before they are erradicted, paying them a curious homage in his amusing Few and Far Between: On The Trail of Britain’s Rarest Animals (2015).

After noting that the black rat has been with us in Britain for longer than the rabbit, he sails to the Shiants and finds his prey:

An hour passed and the light was beginning to dim, when something moving from left to right at the top of the rocks caught me by surprise: a tantalising glimpse of tail disappearing between clumps of sea pink. I held my breath. Could this be one? There are no land mammals other than black rats on the Shiants, so it had to be. Please let me see you, little fellow, I whispered to myself. I was downwind and motionless, though close enough to have been spotted. Would it dare break cover for the sake of a free meal? Nothing stirred for a while, until . . . There! It sprinted to a new hiding place well above the bait –a rat, no mistake. Several minutes went by before it appeared once more, scampering down the face of the rock and dodging behind a piece of old tarpaulin lying next to a rusty boat winch. Black rats are known for their climbing skills, nevertheless the ability to descend slippery vertical stone head-first at such speed, without falling, was extraordinary.

Later noting:

There is no record that I am aware of for the ‘longest journey in Britain to see a rat’, but I feel fairly confident that my trip from Dartmoor to the Hebrides could lay claim to the title.

Photo of “Shiant Isles” by Tony Kinghorn. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Red-necked phalarope stronghold


The Shetland island of Fetlar is a hotshot for red-necked phalarope. Almost of all Britain’s breeding birds nest here around Loch of Funzie. In 2014, a red-necked phalarope tagged here was recorded migrating thousands of miles west across the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, a journey never before recorded for a European breeding bird. It had flown from Shetland across the Atlantic via Iceland and Greenland, south down the eastern seaboard of the US, across the Caribbean and Mexico, ending up off the coast of Ecuador and Peru. After wintering in the Pacific, it returned to Fetlar, following a similar route.

Image of red-necked phalarope by Dave Menke from Wikipedia Commons

Simon Armitage on grouse


Poet Simon Armitage watched grouse as he passed through the blanket bog of Cotherstone Moor, and wrote in ‘Walking Home’, his travelogue along the Pennine Way:

The next stretch is over another barren elevation, populated by small cairns at regular intervals, like relics of a primitive religion or ritualistic practice, their form and function not yet fully understood. There are dozens of them, and dozens of red grouse too, whose numbers on this moor seem absurd, even to the point where they explode out from under our feet every ten yards or so or waddle off in family groups of seven or eight led by the mother, so many in fact that it would probably be harder to miss a grouse with a shotgun, even when firing blind drunk, than to hit one. I’ve heard it said that to create a diversion and allow her young to escape the female grouse will sometimes feign injury by dragging a wing and floundering along the ground, but I’ve never seen it, even though on these overstocked acres some of these birds are almost within grabbing distance

Image: “Moorland, Cotherstone – – 621337” by Andrew Smith. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Skomer Island


Approximately half the world’s population of Manx shearwaters nest on Skomer and its “sister” island of Skokholm with an estimated  total of 310,000 pairs on Skomer itself and 40,000 pairs on Skokholm, making this the world’s most important breeding site for the species. The birds usually nest in rabbit burrows. The two islands are also home to the largest colony of puffins in southern Britain (10,000 breeding pairs), many likewise nesting in the burrows created by the large population of rabbits.

BBC Radio 4’s Living World visits Skomer Island off the south east coast of Wales and home to thousands of seabirds.

There are 25,000 guillemots packed together on the cliffs, no other bird breeds in such close proximity to its neighbours. Fights and squabbles constantly break out, but friendships and pair-bonding are very strong. They keep the same mate for life and produce one chick a year. The fledgling has to leap from the sheer cliff face into the sea below to find its dad, surrounded by thousands of others, and try to avoid being eaten by predatory gulls. Each year each guillemot pair comes back to exactly the same place on the cliff ledge and they defend it vigorously.

In the early decades of the 20th Century there were 100,000 guillemots on Skomer but numbers plummeted to just 2000 after the second world war, probably due to oil pollution in the sea. Now numbers are slowly recovering but the increase in storms may be a problem for them in the future. Listen

Image of puffins on Skomer by Skomer-WickLand” by SkrrpOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Grassholm Island


Located 11 miles of the coast of Pembrokeshire, Grassholm is home to more than 39,000 breeding pairs of Gannet, representing around 10 percent of the world population – the third largest Atlantic gannet colony in the UK (behind St Kilda and Bass Rock). The island is also the westernmost point in Wales.

Image: Gannets on Grassholm – – 174369″ by dave challender. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Pioneering wildlife photographer


In 1905, Emma Turner built a houseboat on Hickling Broad, still today the largest reed-bed in England, in Norfolk to photograph the wildlife, while lying in the marshes her lens poking out from the reeds, Six years later she managed to photograph a young Bittern in the nest proving that Bitterns were breeding again in Norfolk having been driven to extinction in Britain in the late 1800s. This BBC Radio 4 programme tells the remarkable story of Emma Turner a pioneer of bird photography (1866-1940); who spent some 20 years on her boat, she nicknamed ‘Water Rail’ (after the first photograph she took in the Broadlands).

Big Ben’s starlings

On the evening 12 August 1949  a flock of starlings landed on one of the minute hands of Big Ben causing it to slow by five minutes. The clock was unable to chime at 9pm but was back to normal by midnight [here].

Incidentally, an entire episode of The Goon Show in 1954 parodied of the futile efforts to disrupt the large common starling roosts in central London.

Sadly, the magnificent murmurations over the city are now a thing of the past as this RSPB article reminds us, although they are still the second most common bird found in London’s gardens according to the  annual Big Garden Birdwatch.

Golden eagles of Bowglass


According to Robin Reid, RSPB officer for the Western Isles, Bowglass (Bogha Glas) on the Isle of Harris is the best place in the whole of Europe to see Golden Eagles (BBC Wildlife, Feb 2015).

The track that goes up from [the car park at] Bowglass runs through four different golden eagle territories. If you spent a day between February and June going up that track…. there’s a good chance you’d see five to ten  different eagles. I can’t think of anywhere else in Europe where you can walk up a glen and potentially see so many eagles in just three or four hours.

Photo from Geograph © Copyright Peter Moore and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Guga Hunters of Ness

The Guga Hunters of Ness

“A BBC feature documentary about a Gaelic island community in Scotland embarking on their epic annual seabird hunt in the treacherous North Atlantic.

Every August ten men from Ness set sail through the gales of the North Atlantic for Sula Sgeir, a desolate island 40 miles off the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Following in the footsteps of countless generations, they leave their normal lives behind to hunt for the guga, the meat of the young gannets.

The men spend two exhausting weeks on the uninhabited rock, sleeping in stone huts amongst ruins left by Celtic monks a thousand years ago. They work ceaselessly, catching, killing and salting 2000 birds using traditional methods before returning home with this rare meat so cherished by the people of Ness.

These are the last men allowed to hunt seabirds in the EU and the UK and for 50 years this ancient tradition has remained hidden from the cameras. In 2009 we sailed with the hunters and filmed their unique voyage.”

The Guga Hunters of Ness – Trailer from Intrepid Cinema on Vimeo.

The dead birds are then brought back to Lewis and boiled in milk and served as a delicacy. A delicacy for some for others their salty, oily flesh is an acquired taste: ‘ like salt-mackerel-flavoured chicken’, as Lewis writer Donald Murray put it.