'Forbidden Island' begins search for new inhabitants

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ONE OF Britain's most beautiful islands, traditionally closed to inhabitants except those working on nature reserve projects, is looking to the wider public to boost its numbers.

The island of Rum, in the inner Hebrides, sometimes known as "The Forbidden Island", needs new blood after its population dwindled to 19 last year, leaving the primary school with only one pupil.

Although the population is now back to 30, including seven children, the number is way below the 400 who lived there before the island was leased for sheep farming in the 19th century and 350 inhabitants were shipped to Nova Scotia.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), a government agency that owns the 26,000- acre nature reserve, has appointed a project officer, Doreen Jones. This week she has started trying to work out what sort of housing and employment could be offered to newcomers.

"The aim is to have a viable population that is more diverse and not just working for SNH," a spokeswoman for the agency said. "We want to make sure there are children in the school and that the population gradually rises to 50, without compromising the reserve."

Newcomers will benefit from living in a Site of Special Scientific Interest that boasts rare alpine plants, an indigenous breed of fieldmouse and pony, feral goats, golden and white-tailed sea eagles, and a 120,000-strong colony of Manx shearwaters that nest in underground burrows in the south of the island.

Originally the island was thickly forested and inhabited by red deer, of which several hundred still remain.

The SNH spokeswoman said that lots of people were interested in moving to the island, many of them from the South of England. The regeneration project is part of a wider programme for the small isles off the west coast of Scotland, such as Eigg and Muck, to find ways of making them economically viable with sustainable communities.

Ms Jones said: "This is just the beginning and it is not going to be an easy task. It is going to take time, patience and diplomacy. Although it is a nature reserve, there is still a community here. It would be nice in a few years' time if people visiting the island find that the people who are here now are still here."