A frigatebird chick is being raised on Ascension Island for the first time in more than a century – and here it is, basking its downy feathers in the sun in this picture by Kenickie Simon Andrews.
Its arrival in the world came nine years after the island was declared free of feral cats, which had restricted most birds to breeding on tiny Boatswainbird Island.
A message on the Ascension Island Conservation page on Facebook says:
“At the end of last year, we observed the first two pairs of our endemic frigatebirds nesting on the mainland in over 100 years.
“Ascension was declared free from feral cats in 2004 and since then many of the masked and brown boobies have returned to the mainland to breed, but it was not until very recently that we observed the first of the returning frigatebirds.
“Unfortunately only one of the eggs hatched successfully, but as you can see the chick is doing very well.”
St Helena’s booby boomers
A thriving colony of masked boobies has changed the landscape on southern St Helena – by turning the ridges white around Lot’s Wife rock.
Annalea Beard, of the environment directorate, said: “Amazingly this species has re-established itself even though introduced predators such as feral cats and rats are also known to occupy the area.”
The colony was of global interest as a result, she said.
A few birds were observed nesting below Lot’s Wife, on the barren southern coast of the island, in 2009. A recent count showed 203 adults in the colony, which has turned the ridges white with guano.
“The reasons behind their re-colonisation and their ability to succeed remain
unclear,” said Annalea. “Monitoring is essential to make sure the colony continues to be successful.”
A large number of rats have been found around the sooty tern colony on Ascension Island – with evidence of having fed on chicks.
Now one has been captured on video, probing round a nest at night while a tern refuses to move away.
The video has been published on the Ascension Island Conservation group’s Facebook page, which reports on a project by researcher Emily Dawson to study the black rat.
It says: “Emily Dawson, an MSc student from the University of Exeter, has found a high density of rats in the area surrounding the sooty tern colonies most with large quantities of sooty tern chick remains in their stomachs.”
Twenty five men and women are spending months camping out on ice-covered South Georgia on what’s been called “the world’s biggest rat cull”.
It is being led by zoologist Anthony Martin, dubbed the Pied Piper, who hopes to poison millions of the rats that have been killing seabirds for 200 years on St Helena’s sister territory in the Southern Ocean.
“If we remove 99.9% of them, we’ve failed,” Professor Martin tells the Wall Street Journal. “We have to get every single animal.”
Sadly, his technique of dumping 200 tons of poison from helicopters cannot be used on St Helena, where some pest controllers were made redundant in 2012 despite complaints of increasing rat sightings.
On South Georgia, it is feared the poison may harm birds that feed on the ground – just as St Helena’s endangered wirebirds do.
When the experts from Shelco went to look round the site of their proposed eco-resort on St Helena, they were greeted by one of the locals.
It was evidence – not really needed – that it’s not only people that find Broad Bottom one of the most attractive spots on St Helena. Rattus Norvegicus and Rattus Rattus have found it increasingly congenial too.
And wirebird eggs and chicks are favoured delicacies in the rodent diet. Not one wirebird chick survived the last breeding season at Broad Bottom – one of the prime nesting sites for St Helena’s unique but critically endangered bird species.
Shelco’s plans for a hotel, lodges and “eco golf course” seek to reverse the landscape changes that have led rats to increase, and wirebird numbers to fall.
The developer’s environmental consultant, Dr Keith Duff, says rats thrive because of a lack of controls, and the spread of scrub and flax, which harbour predators:
“There is some periodic control of rats at Broad Bottom Farm by St Helena Government pest control operatives, using poison baits, but this is only done in response to requests from Solomons on public health grounds.
“Government action to control rats does not extend to doing this to protect wirebirds.
“Stands of flax, and scrub, provide nesting areas for rats, so a successful predator control programme needs to be done in parallel with a scrub clearance and management programme.”
The other big problem for the ground-nesting wirebirds, he says, is loss of suitable habitat.
Wirebirds like to nest on ground that’s not too steep, where the grass is short – apparently so they can keep an eye out for predators. Shelco has suggested digging “shelves” into the hillside at Broad Bottom to make the land more conducive to nesting.
In the past, there were plenty of sheep and cattle to graze the pastures, but not any more. Solomon and Company keeps a small herd of cattle at Broad Bottom, but no sheep.
Cattle only trim the grass to 75 millimetres, which Dr Duff says is not enough for the wirebirds to keep their lookout. So Shelco proposes grazing by sheep as well, to bring the grass down to a favourable height.
It should be said that Dr Fiona Burns of the RSPB, who has researched wirebirds on the island, does not share his view about the need for grazing by sheep.
The Shelco adviser goes on to say that because cattle are moved around the site, “only a small part of the Broad Bottom wirebird census area is ever in ideal condition for wirebirds at any one time.” He says:
“Large areas of the Sebastopol grazing unit have been over-run by extensive and thick stands of scrub, primarily gorse, white weed and pine. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of parts of Ding Dong Gut.
“This seems to haveresulted from reduced grazing levels in recent years, and has led to loss of both pasture and wirebird habitat. If remedial action is not taken soon it is likely that these areas will be permanently lost to wirebirds, and to grazing.
“Scrub also shows signs of expanding within many of the other grazing compartments.
“The only way to overcome this major problem is through a major scrub clearance exercise.”
Dr Duff told St Helena Online: “The key point which we are trying to address at Broad Bottom is to reverse the bad situation which has developed.
“I am not implying, or seeking to imply, any criticism of anyone in my report. The reality is that the current situation at Broad Bottom is not good for wirebirds.”
Dr Burns takes a sympathetic view of the circumstances behind the habitat loss.
“Across the whole island, grazing animals has not been profitable, so farms have declined in recent years and in several areas that has led to habitat becoming less suitable, not just at this location. Land has become overgrown, but that is part of a whole-island issue.
“There is no obligation at present for a landowner to maintain land in a way that is beneficial to wirebirds. In the future, new protection might have some implications.”
St Helena Government is establishing Important Wirebird Areas, including Broad Bottom. Legal protection could come into effect by 2013.
The RSPB is also doing more research on cats and rats, and the way their populations impact on each other (if you reduce the number of cats because they attack wirebirds, will rats become more of a problem?).
“Hopefully that will be able to inform more sensible management,” says Fiona Burns. “At the moment the government of St Helena mostly targets rodent control around places where people live, but we would hope in the future they might be able to take on some level of control for the sake of wirebirds.”
On most parts of St Helena, cats are the main threat to wirebirds. Dr Fiona Burns set up cameras to monitor attacks on nests. Sixty five per cent of raids caught on film were by cats. Bizarrely, a sheep was also filmed taking an egg, and one chick on the point of hatching was killed by ants.
Reports of increasing numbers of rats have caused concern at public meetings on St Helena. They’re a threat to the island’s critically endangered wirebird, but they also pose a serious risk to humans.
By the time Henry Thorpe realised he was seriously ill, he could no longer even crawl to the phone to call for medical help.
He’d gone down with rat fever, as it’s known on St Helena, but for three days he thought it was just a passing illness.
“I had diarrhoea and I was vomiting and it wasted the muscles in my legs – but not my arms.
“On about the fourth day I realised it wasn’t a flu, and that’s when I dragged myself to the phone with my hands along the floor. I called them up and said, ‘I think I need to go to hospital.'”
Henry – now a student in the UK – told his story to St Helena Online as complaints began emerging of growing numbers of rats on the island.
He was at high risk of being infected with rat fever – correctly known as leptospirosis – because he kept pigs.
St Helena Government has confirmed that five pest controllers are being laid off and its poisoning routine has been gradually changed because of rising costs, but it says it has not had evidence of increased rat numbers.
Ironically, one of Henry’s jobs when he worked at Thorpe’s, the family business in Jamestown, was to order up supplies of poison for Saints who were reluctant to buy it through the government.
He now knows all too well the dangers of catching leptospirosis – or Weil’s Disease – from the rats that came to the island on sailing ships in the days of the East India Company.
The disease is easily treated in most cases, but only if people realise how ill they are, and seek help.
“It’s a really serious thing. People have died because the symptoms are so flu-like – exactly like flu that doesn’t go away.”
Henry, son of Nick and Gail Thorpe, was lucky. He was a fit young man, and he pulled through.
“They put me on a drip and a penicillin antibiotic thing that I think they also give to people with acne. I thought that was strange.
“I was in hospital for about four days, not being able to use my legs properly, and after that I was on crutches for a bit. I did lose muscle in my arm, but you’re not holding up 80kg so you only notice it in your legs.
“I’ve probably done damage to my liver – I looked a bit jaundiced.”
At the time – about five years ago – Henry was living at his father’s home at Woodlands.
“I’m not sure how I contracted it. It needs to get into your blood. I think I got it from walking round in bare feet or feeding pigs. They throw food around and it attracts rats.
“The spring was dry, so I wasn’t really able to wash my hands properly.”
It is possible for pigs or dogs to infect people with leptospira bacteria, but it is far more commonly spread by rats. Farmers are especially at risk.
While he was still in hospital, Henry gave an interview about his experience to Mike Olsson, who was then editor of the St Helena Herald. It would be some weeks before test results came back from South Africa to confirm that he had rat fever.
He says he was “told off” by a doctor, because the diagnosis was unconfirmed. “He probably thought it was going to cause a panic on the island – and it could have been flu. I felt slightly vindicated when the results did come back.
“It felt like they were hushing it up – ‘There’s no lepto here.’ I think it probably is an issue people should be made aware of.
“I suspect many cases go undiagnosed because people think it is flu, so I don’t know whether they just call it flu and blank everything with antibiotics.
“Perhaps because the cure is so simple, with a drug that targets so many bacteria, people weren’t that interested in what it was.”
Mild leptospirosis causes headaches, chills and muscle pain. The severe form can cause organ failure and internal bleeding. Most people only develop the milder symptoms.
People under five or over 65 are more at risk – as are people who already have a serious condition, such as pneumonia. Experts believe the fatality rate is between 5% and 25% worldwide, but poor records in many countries mean that is only a guess.
Dr Anthea Goode, who worked on St Helena in the 1990s, says medics on the island know the risk. “The real thing is to be aware of it.
“In the UK you might miss it because it’s so rare but on St helena you’re thinking about it all the time. The symptoms people tend to get are red-eye and muscle aches. You can get pneumonia, and bad headaches.”
Dr S J Wooltorton wrote about the disease in his book, A Doctor’s Thoughts On St Helena, published in 1988.
He said rat fever was “relatively common” on the island.
“A high fever with vigorous shaking, severe muscle pains, headache and vomiting herald the onset.
“The bacteria invade all parts of the body, damaging the muscles, kidneys, liver, heart and lungs.
“Blood leaks into the urine from the swollen kidneys, jaundice develops as the liver fails, the heart races to maintain the blood pressure, and any pressure on the muscles of the arms or legs causes considerable pain.
“The obvious warning to us all is to keep rats and mice away from any drinking or swimming water.”
With hindsight, Henry says he should have sought help much sooner. “I think a lot of Saints would go to the doctor earlier. When I go to the doctor I’ve got to be dying.”
Ask his parents, and they’ll say he nearly did die.
St Helena Government says the island has had no confirmed cases of leptospirosis in recent years.
Claims that rats are on the increase across the island have been discounted by St Helena Government (SHG) – just as the number of pest controllers is being halved.
Five of the 11 staff who lay bait are to lose their jobs.
Councillors have confirmed receiving complaints, but a statement from The Castle says: “There is no indication at present that rat numbers are increasing. The number of requests for rodent control has not risen significantly.”
It also says that the number of rodent bodies being found went down by a fifth in 2011.
But in Blue Hill, John Turner tells a different story.
“We are experiencing a significant growth in the number of rats killed by our cats,” he says.
“We used to get about one body per week. Now it’s six in a week.
“We currently have half a dozen cats and they’re all pretty efficient rat killers. We find the evidence on the doorstep.”
The government statement confirms that baiting has been cut back in recent years, because of shrinking budgets and the rising cost of rodenticides. It says:
“The section’s rodent control programme is forever evolving from what used to be a proactive approach to more reactive approach.
“There are presently 11 pest control operators, including two supervisors, who regularly bait different residential areas around the island.
“Baiting is mainly carried out around farms , dwellings, and along roadsides. Control within dwellings, sheds and garages is done by request.
“Rodent control on private land such as coffee plantations is also done by request.”
Bait stations have been set up around the island where rodents forage or feed. Staff check them “as often as possible”, but that depends on weather, the number of requests for help, and the distance operators have to travel.
Roads linking with private homes are included in the baiting programme.
But where long stretches of roads and pasture land might have been baited routinely in the past, now it is done when problems arise.
Rumours of a shortage of bait are denied: “The directorate always has poisons on the shelf as back-up; therefore there is enough available for use when we are waiting for our next consignment.”
St Helena law says householders and landowners “shall take such steps as may from time to time be necessary and reasonably practicable for the destruction of rodents.”
Infestations must be reported – and control staff have the right to enter land to destroy rats.
But the kind of poison now used by the health department is too powerful to be used by the public.
Rats became resistant to Warfarin, which was safer for other species but required several “takes” before the animal would die.
Now pest control staff use more toxic rodenticides called Difenacoum or Bromadiolone, which need only a single feed to kill.
Rats have been completely wiped out on some remote islands with vulnerable wildlife, but SHG says it is “highly unlikely that complete eradication is possible”.
Instead, the aim is “to reduce rodent control populations to a tolerable level”.
John Turner is unconvinced that the health department can cope with the problem by working more efficiently once staffing has been cut.
“The island is basing its future on high-end tourists coming here to see our environment,” he says, “but I can’t imagine they want to see this particular aspect of our ecosystem.”
Climate change is jeopardising the future of some of Britain’s overseas territories and could leave islands ‘completely cut off,’ a UK government report has warned.
Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman says in the report: ‘The environmental challenges which our overseas territories face are… threatening the future security and safety of our territories, and in particular the people and the biodiversity that they support.’
Research says small island territories are ‘virtually certain to experience the most severe ecological impacts’ of climate change, including heat waves, heavy rain and storm surges.
The report adds: ‘Some islands could be completely cut off from communication with the outside world owing to their remoteness, potential impacts of sea-level rise and more intense storms, including damage to infrastructure such as ports, harbours, airport structures and facilities.
‘There could also be significant health impacts arising from both sea-level rise and extreme weather events.’
Threats identified by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) include:
Invasive alien species, which harmed St Helena’s last bastard gumwood tree
Loss of habitats
Problems coping with waste, including on Tristan da Cunha
Damage to nature from tourism
Economic damage from alien species, on land and in the sea.
‘Tourism is important to the local economy of the UKOTs,’ says the report, ‘but can also deplete and damage local natural resources.
‘It is also intrinsically linked with development to serve the needs of tourists, and development pressures can result in negative changes in land use.’
The report has been published ahead of a White Paper – due early in 2012 – bringing together the policies of the three government departments responsible for overseas territories.
It sets out the support given by DEFRA to protect the environment in the territories, including the 340 species that are found nowhere else in the world – many of them endangered lists.
‘The risks of not considering the value of the natural environment in decision-making may lead to unsustainable economies,’ says the report.
‘Not considering environmental issues such as climate change could lead to security and safety issues.’
Research is taking place on the threat of non-native plants in the Falkland Islands. ‘There are now more introduced plants than native plants in the Falkland Islands. Thistles and ragwort species are examples of competitive invaders that have been introduced deliberately or accidentally through trade, tourism and travel.’
Horses can die from eating ragwort.
Projects on St Helena included efforts to capture seeds from the last surviving bastard gumwood tree. Mass planting may save it from extinction.
Alien marine species – a serious threat to fisheries – are to be investigated in waters around South Georgia, the Falklands and Tristan da Cunha.
The report also says money is to be spent attacking ‘high priority invasive alien species’ – including rats – in the Falklands, Ascension and St Helena.
Read the full report, with details of projects in all the overseas territories, here.