Northern Ireland

Rathlin Island rats could be wiped out in RSPB plans

Rats
Image caption The RSPB blames rats for a fall in bird numbers on Rathlin Island

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is set to reveal plans to exterminate the rat and ferret population on Rathlin Island.

The RSPB said that the pests are directly responsible for plummeting bird numbers on the island.

Not only are they a threat to ground-nesting birds, but they also carry diseases and prevent islanders from keeping free-range chickens.

The ferrets were introduced by humans a number of years ago to hunt rabbits.

The RSPB highlighted the success of a similar initiative on the island of Lundy, in the Bristol Channel, in 2001.

Removing rats from this island saw the numbers of the rare Manx shearwater, which can live for over 50 years, rise from 150 to at least 560 by 2008.

It is hoped that driving out rats and ferrets could also attract the long-lived seabird back to Rathlin's shores.

The RSPB has indicated that it could use poisoned bait to wipe out the vermin, but the exact method is still unclear, and is subject to an ongoing consultation with residents.

RSPB NI director Dr James Robinson said initial plans were for "a very short-term project with immediate conservation benefits".

However, Noel McCurdy, chair of the Rathlin Development and Community Association, told the BBC that islanders need much more information before any decision is reached on the taxpayer-funded initiative.

Although he agreed that most people would want rid of the ferrets, he said he was not entirely convinced that the rat problem cannot be dealt with closer to home: "The rats have been here since the first boats came to Rathlin, how many thousands of years ago," he said.

Mr McCurdy pointed out that local council initiatives are already under way to deal with the rat problem, notably a campaign to keep the island clean: "If rubbish is put in bins, you won't attract the rats."

It remains to be seen where and when the next step will be taken.