HC 846 Sustainability in the Overseas Territories

Written evidence submitted by the South Georgia
Heritage Trust

Summary

· The South Georgia Heritage Trust, a charity registered in Scotland, is engaged in a project to eradicate rodents from the South Atlantic island, and UK Overseas Territory, of South Georgia. Rodents (mainly rats, but also mice), inadvertently introduced by sealing and whaling ships in the 19th and 20th centuries, do enormous damage to South Georgia’s spectacular seabird populations.

· The first phase of the project, using helicopters to spread poisoned bait, was carried out in March 2011. All the signs are that this was a complete success.

· The second stage of fieldwork will be carried out from February to May 2013.

· This is the largest such eradication project ever to have been undertaken anywhere in the world.

· The objective is to complete the project by eradicating every rodent on South Georgia by the end of 2015.

· The project is being funded entirely from voluntary donations, mainly from foundations and individuals. Just over £3.7 million of the £7.5 million required to complete the project has been raised so far.

· This is the first such project of any significance to be run by an NGO rather than by government.

· SGHT has also funded two research projects addressing issues related to the establishment of marine protected areas around South Georgia.

Introduction

1. The South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) was established in 2005 as a charity registered in Scotland (Scottish Registered Charity Number SC036819). Its purpose is to preserve and protect the natural environment and historical heritage of the South Atlantic island of South Georgia, a UK Overseas Territory. More details about the Trust’s background and activities can be found on its website at www.sght.org .

2. In connection with the Environmental Audit Committee’s current inquiry into sustainability in the Overseas Territories, the Committee may be interested to hear about SGHT’s Habitat Restoration Project, the objective of which is the complete eradication of rats and mice, both of which are invasive species, from South Georgia. A description of the project follows below.

The Problem

3. Introduced inadvertently from sealing and whaling ships in the 19th and 20th centuries, rodents have thrived and done enormous damage to the island’s bird population. The spread of rats on South Georgia continues today, their progress only limited by the sea and large areas of permanent ice, especially glaciers. Scientists have now demonstrated that as a result of global climate change glaciers on South Georgia are in rapid retreat, so areas of the island once protected from rats now risk being over-run unless urgent action is taken.

Project Objectives

4. The project objectives are:

· to remove every rodent from 1,000 square kilometres (386 square miles) of infested land on South Georgia by 2015, thereby safeguarding seabirds from future attack and, in some cases, extinction

· to facilitate the return of millions of seabirds to their traditional nesting sites and thereby increase the breeding range and population size of many seabirds

· to complete the operation without any long term detriment to native wildlife.

Our vision is to return South Georgia as far as possible to the pristine state in which Captain Cook found it when he discovered the island in 1775.

Project Activities and Methodology

5. The key factor that makes eradication feasible on South Georgia is that the island’s rat population is divided into a number of discrete sub-populations, each separated by currently impassable ice barriers. The methodology employed is firmly based on successful eradication work employed elsewhere, but modified to reflect the unique circumstances of this island and this operation. An expert team, using helicopters, spread cereal-based bait at low densities over all areas harbouring rodents. The active ingredient in the pellets is brodifacoum , a second-generation anticoagulant, with 25 parts per million of toxin in each pellet. The helicopters are equipped with a global positioning (GPS) and tracking system to enable the pilots to maintain flight lines with a high degree of accuracy and achieve the desired even bait coverage.

6. The project requires at least three seasons of baiting activity. The first took place in March/April 2011, and we shall be returning to South Georgia for the next season of fieldwork in February – May 2013.

Expected Results and Their Impact

7. The size of the area to be cleared on South Georgia makes this a project of global significance, and it has excited a great deal of interest in international environmental circles. Once completed, the Habitat Restoration Project will transform the wildlife and natural ecology of this stunning island, sweeping away two centuries of damage caused by human intervention.

8. Our objective is that South Georgia will be free of rodents by the end of 2015. The benefits will be spectacular. In the longer term the wildlife and natural ecology of the island will be transformed with the subsequent return of well over 100 million seabirds to their traditional nesting sites, making South Georgia the greatest concentration of seabirds in the world.

Success of Phase 1

9. The fieldwork for the trial Phase 1 of the Habitat Restoration Project was successfully completed in March 2011 – in 28 days, half the allocated time and under our projected budget. Although this first phase of the project involved only 12% of the rat-infested land area of South Georgia, the 12,800 hectares treated already makes this the largest rodent eradication operation ever attempted anywhere in the world. All the evidence so far indicates that this part of South Georgia is now rat free for the first time in two centuries. Just weeks after Phase 1 baiting was completed, a brood of South Georgia pintail ducklings appeared at King Edward Point with their mother, the first to have been seen in the area for many years and the first in perhaps two centuries to have a good chance of survival.

10. Continuous opportunistic monitoring on the Thatcher Peninsula, and dedicated surveys of the Greene Peninsula carried out by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, have not revealed any sign of rodents. We are now 18 months from the completion of the Phase 1 baiting work, so we are confident that the methodology used in 2011 was broadly appropriate, and that the bait was overwhelmingly effective. This knowledge is very helpful in planning for Phase 2, because it is already apparent that we need not change anything dramatically from what was done last year.

Phase 2 Plans

11. Preparations to clear rodents from the rest of the island, starting in February 2013, are well underway. All members of the field team have been recruited, the British Antarctic Survey’s RRS Ernest Shackleton has been chartered, and equipment and non-perishable supplies have been sourced. All 183 tonnes of bait has been manufactured and packed. The helicopters have been made airworthy and are being transported to South Georgia via the Falkland Islands.  

Monitoring and Dissemination

12. There will be a clearly defined monitoring programme with three key components:

(a) monitoring for the presence of rat sign following baiting operations

(b) monitoring of effects of bait spreading on non-target species

(c) monitoring the expected recovery of rat vulnerable wildlife populations.

13. Lessons learned from this project will be of special interest to other invasive species eradication projects across the world. Media interest in this project and its results is strong, providing public outreach on an international scale.

Secured Funding

14. As of today, SGHT has raised over £3.7 million, nearly 50% of the overall fundraising goal of £7.5 million (Phases 1 and 2 combined), all of it from voluntary donations to the Trust. Current funders of this project include: the Island Foundation, Garfield Weston Foundation, UK Government (DEFRA), Schroder Foundation, Binks Trust, Rufford Foundation, Ferring Pharmaceuticals, Dr Frederik Paulsen Foundation, Bell Laboratories, Lyda Hill, Forest Mars Jr., Farallan Island Foundation, Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, the Salvesen Family, Healthy Planet, Bess Jahres Foundation, Gosling Foundation, Kingfisher Plc, Planeterra, and many individual visitors to South Georgia and other individual supporters. The Trust is heavily engaged in efforts to raise the remaining funds required to complete the project (nearly £4 million), a challenging prospect at any time but especially so in the current economic climate.

15. This is not only the largest rodent eradication project ever to be undertaken, it is also as far as we are aware the first to be undertaken by an NGO, and one which is moreover totally dependent on voluntary donations, rather than by government. (The RSPB has subsequently undertaken a project to eradicate rats from Henderson Island, which is part of the Pitcairn group in the Pacific Ocean and is also a UK Overseas Territory.)

Other projects

16. In addition to the Habitat Restoration Project, SGHT has also funded two projects related to one of the other areas of interest to the Environmental Audit Committee, marine protected areas. The first project, now completed, addressed the biodiversity of the benthic floor of the Southern Ocean. This study created 14,000 unique records representing 1,027 species of seabed life around South Georgia. The second of these projects involves research by British Antarctic Survey and Cambridge University in support of the development of marine protected areas around South Georgia, the purpose of which is to identify areas that are high in biodiversity and the focus of feeding activity by higher predators, such as albatrosses, and therefore worthy of protection.

30 November 2012.

Prepared 14th January 2013