South Georgia enters the rat race to exterminate its very unwelcome invaders

Helicopters drop 200 tons of poison pellets in world’s biggest extermination project

They call themselves “Team Rat” and yesterday they announced the successful completion of the second phase of the world’s biggest rodent-eradication project to protect the unique sea birds living on the remote island of South Georgia in the South Atlantic.

Click image above to enlarge graphic

Millions of rats and mice introduced to South Georgia by human seafarers over the past 200 years have decimated the ground-nesting birds of the island. Only the 25 men and women of Team Rat stand in the way of the total eradication of the island’s precious bird life, scientists said.

The team have battled appalling weather to lay 200 tons of poisoned pellets from three helicopters flying over sites on the coastal fringes of the island where the rats live. At one stage the project’s scientific director, Professor Tony Martin of Dundee University, thought wind and snow flurries would prevent the completion of the baiting, but a sudden lift in the weather allowed the final pellet to be laid on 18 May, just as the Antarctic winter set in.

“We were forever fighting the weather. It was a race against time – and we almost ran out of time,” said Professor Martin, who has spent most of the past decade planning a way of saving the 31 species of birds that breed on South Georgia, including pipits, petrels and albatrosses.

“I thought in mid-April that we weren’t going to be able to get it done, but I didn’t tell anyone in case it affected morale. But then we got a miracle – eight days of flying weather when at last there was some hope of finishing,” he said.

“We got the job done as the cold weather and snow moved in. We collapsed into our sleeping tents that night with the most amazing sense of relief that we’d got the last pellet out of the last baiting pod”.

The team of international experts from as far as Norway and New Zealand laid the pellets over 580 square kilometres of the UK Overseas Territory, making more than 1,000 flights and clocking up 600 flying hours. About 70 per cent of the work has been completed; the rest will be done in 2015.

South Georgia is criss-crossed with glaciers that divide the island into separate habitable zones for the invasive brown rats, which have no natural predators and feed on the eggs and live young of seabirds that burrow or nest on the ground.

With the glaciers retreating from the coastal areas, rats will soon be able to move freely from one zone to another along new, glacier-free beachheads, making any future extermination programme impracticable, Professor Martin said.

The project is the biggest of its kind ever undertaken on an island where rats have become an invasive species. The poison, which does not dissolve in water and is left untouched by nearly all seabirds, must be spread over entire areas in order to kill as many rats as possible in one go.

The aim is to eliminate entire populations in one season so that not a single breeding pair survives to repopulate the island.

“To clear this magnificent island of rodents accidentally introduced by humans has been an ambition of mine for over a decade and I am thrilled we are well on the way to securing this important seabird habitat for future generations,” Professor Martin said.

It will take at least 10 years to ensure that the island is completely rat-free once the final phase of baiting is finished in 2015. There will always be a chance that a few rats survive the cull, but the longer there are no signs of them, the greater the chances of total success, he said.

As to the ethics of killing one species to protect another, Professor Martin is unapologetic: “The simple fact is that the rats will get to every island in South Georgia and they will eradicate the pipit and other species of birds.

“I feel strongly that humans should put right the damage they have done,” he said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Cleaner

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you've got first class custo...

Recruitment Genius: Mobile Applications Developer / Architect - iOS and Android

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a medium s...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Account Executive - £40K OTE

£11830 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working in a friendly, sales ta...

Recruitment Genius: Web Designer

£15000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most