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
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
News
Comedian Ted Robbins collapsed on stage during a performance of Phoenix Nights Live at Manchester Arena (Rex)
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links