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