Combating Invasive Mice to Save Unique Seabirds from Extinction

Gough Island is one of the most remote and pristine environments left on Earth, yet predatory mice are threatening the very survival of its native birds including the Tristan Albatross and Gough Bunting

Isolated and alone in the southern Atlantic Ocean, the wildlife of Gough Island enjoyed peace from outside disturbances for millennia. In this remote paradise, seabirds have lived and evolved within their ecosystem, in balance with the forces of nature.

Here, where rodents were unknown, birds like the Tristan Albatross, the Gough Bunting and the Atlantic Petrel never needed to worry about protecting their young from ground predators. Instead, they made nests and burrows, which provided all the shelter and protection necessary to hatch a successful brood. That was, until the outsiders began to arrive.

Accidental stowaways from far-off lands

Beginning in the Age of Discovery, explorers from Europe began to come to Gough Island. Next came seal hunters – some of whom stayed on the island for a year or more at a time. Along with their ships came mice, who made it ashore to a new-found world of plenty.

In the years since, those mice have bred and adapted to become 50% larger, while developing a taste for the eggs and hatchlings of the birds they find on the ground and below it. With nothing like mice in the ecosystem before – and an abundance of food accessible to them – the mice have thrived. In fact, by 2018, research supported by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) estimated that mice were causing the loss of two million chicks and eggs every year.

The situation was so severe that the 2017/18 breeding season saw just 21% of Tristan Albatross chicks survive to take flight – joining a population that’s only 3,400-4,800 mature adults. Other birds like the MacGillivray’s Prion were also severely impacted.

A Monumental Effort to Eliminate Mice with Helicopters

With such a clearly identified threat to a critically endangered species, the RSPB and international partners set out to undertake the most ambitious mice eradication programme in the world.

The RSPB led a coalition including the South African government, New Zealand and US conservation experts, and the government of the UK Overseas Territory Tristan da Cunha – to which Gough Island belongs.

Hurtigruten Foundation donated NOK 200,000 (approx. £16,500) to the cause in 2020-2021, joining other contributions and donations.

Gough Island's remoteness, rough terrain, and harsh weather conditions made the operation logistically complex. The ambitious plan was to spread bait pellets containing rodenticide across the island by helicopter, during the austral summer of 2021. Meanwhile, the conservationists took into their care populations of land birds including moorhens and Gough Buntings, to safeguard them during the operation.

Spreading Awareness and Education

The learnings from this project are now being shared across the organisations involved and more widely, to inform similar projects around the world and improve biosecurity protocols in both Tristan da Cunha and South Africa – whose Marion Island will undergo a similar mouse eradication attempt.

The project is also tied to a UK-wide communications programme centred on seabirds and the threats they face from human activity. With this, the RSPB aims to show their members and the wider UK public how seabirds are at risk both on land and at sea. Their goal is to increase environmental awareness on this globally important issue for more than one-million people in the UK.

Supporting Local Economies and Restoring their Unique Attraction

This project also helps Tristan da Cunha’s fragile economy, which currently centres around community farming and export income from sustainable lobster fishing. By improving the biosecurity on the island, the project will help to secure the status of Gough Island as a World Heritage Site, building on the Tristan da Cunha community’s reputation as careful stewards of their islands’ natural heritage. The Tristan da Cunha government hopes this will lead to ongoing tourism development, creating economic growth and thus supporting this isolated community.

Where can I learn more?

You can get the latest information on the RSPB’s Gough Island Restoration Programme website

About the RSPB

For over 100 years the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has been rallying people together to save nature and from humble roots is now the largest nature conservation charity in the UK.

From saving declining species and restoring our precious lands to protecting our seas, the RSPB’s work makes an impact in the UK and internationally too, and none of it would be possible without the help of partners and supporters.

Hurtigruten Foundation has donated NOK 200,000 (approx.£16,500) since 2020 to the charity’s Gough Island restoration programme.