Published: 13/02/2014 09:49 - Updated: 13/02/2014 09:55

Challenge of bringing mammals under control


Action might be taken at last to control brown rats on the Isle of Rum after SNH electronically tagged one to help monitor the population.
Action might be taken at last to control brown rats on the Isle of Rum after SNH electronically tagged one to help monitor the population.
THIS month various mammals – including mink, brown rats, red and roe deer – have been in the news.


Red deer started it off with an increasing clamour about there being far too many deer in the north.

There were claims the deer were doing untold damage to vital habitats and adversely affecting other wildlife.

This claim has always been there, as I can recall from many years ago when I was secretary of the Gairloch Conservation Group, which was one of the first deer management groups. These were set up set up to control the numbers of red deer but they included other aspects and also covered roe deer and the recently colonising sika deer.

Lea MacNally was a very active member and woe betide any estate that fell behind with their deer cull figures.

By coincidence, last week I reviewed a book on this page on red deer by John Fletcher. In there was a very sobering statement that New Zealand has 1.5 million deer in deer farms and kill 500,000 of them per annum.

Why such sheer numbers? Well it is, unbelievably, to meet the venison requirements of Europe. 

If we have an over-population in Scotland – the latest estimate is 750,000 – why do we not cull more to help meet the demand of the European market, including the UK?  

One can only wonder that I can still go into food markets and other outlets for venison in the Highlands and find that the source of the meat is New Zealand.

The latest twist is that the 70 deer management groups in Scotland are being urged to carry out “sustainable management” of deer.  Who are these groups accountable to and can we see the details of the groups and their aims and achievements? Surely this should be public knowledge. Even I know some estates that would certainly not meet the overall aims of the groups.

The second mammal that received a great deal of media attention is the brown rat, with plans by Scottish Natural Heritage to see what they are doing on the Isle of Rum.

I used to have some responsibilities on this island and I remember the first time I ever went there. On the first evening I went for a walk at dusk by the famous Kinloch Castle and was amazed at the number of brown rats that seemed everywhere.

Over the years the rats just seemed accepted and everyone just assumed that they would make no difference to the most famous bird of the island, the globally important breeding colony of Manx shearwaters.

These birds are just incredible as they spend the daytime at sea fishing and then come back in at dusk to their breeding burrows. Hearing them coming to their burrows is almost eerie, especially as they nest on the tops of the island hills.

Now, at last, it seems someone is addressing the potential problem with brown rats, as one of them has been electronically tagged. This will enable observers to track its travels by satellite. 

Where brown rats have colonised other islands, including the nearby island of Canna, their removal – because of their adverse effect on nesting seabirds – has been very costly indeed.       

There has also been media coverage of the success of the SNH programme in the Western Isles of eradicating mink. 

According to SNH there are only a few well scattered mink left on Lewis and Harris after the intense programme of trapping and killing since 2001.

The mink would have originally escaped or been illegally released from fur farms. During the eradication programme  around 2,200 mink have been trapped on Lewis and Harris and the Uists. There are various estimates on overall costs but one report indicates it has cost £1.65 million. The latest study indicates that the mink is no longer viable on the islands.

Record of the week

THIS will have to go down as one of the most insignificant small birds that I almost overlooked.

I was on the east coast watching waders and suddenly noticed a very small bird feeding on something on the seaweed that was being washed up with the incoming tide. Whatever it was feeding on was too small for me to see, so it could have been insects or seeds.

It looked like a classic LBJ, which is an expression meaning “Little Brown Job”, but generally used for warblers whose species can look alike.

The bird I was looking at resembled a meadow pipit but it was darker and slightly larger, so I decided it was a rock pipit. The pipit was hopping around, sometimes walking and occasionally with a short run, as it seemed to be constantly searching for food.

Most rock pipits tend to keep to their territories all year round but a few form small groups in the winter. However, this pipit was definitely on its own, as far as I could  see.

The breeding season begins in April with the nest being built in a hole or a hollow of a cliff. Although there are estimated to be around 20,000 pairs of rock pipits breeding in Scotland this bird is declining and the reasons are just not known.

Down south the disturbance by increasing numbers of holidaymakers seems a likely cause but you could hardly say that this is the case in the Highlands.

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