Rathlin Island lies approximately 4 km off the County Antrim coast on the northern coast of Northern Ireland. It is Northern Ireland’s only inhabited offshore island, with a permanent community of around 150 people. The Rathlin Island Special Protection Area (SPA) is designated for breeding razorbill (Alca torda), kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla), guillemot (Uria aalge) and peregrine (Falco peregrinus), and for a breeding seabird assemblage that also includes puffin (Fratercula arctica), fulmar (Fulmaris glacialis), shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis), eider (Somateria mollissima), common gull (Larus canus), herring gull (L. argentatus) and lesser black-backed gull (L. fuscus). Rathlin also has corncrake (Crex crex),a top priority species for LIFE, and has previously held substantial populations of the EU Birds Directive Annex 1 species chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax) and the migratory species Manx shearwater (Puffinus puffinus).
The integrity of the SPA is threatened by brown rats (Rattus norvegicus) and ferrets (Mustela furo). Both are non-native invasive species to the island, with rats introduced in the 19th century and ferrets released in the mid-1980s. Predation by rats and ferrets is believed to have been responsible, either fully or partly, for the significant declines in many of the island’s aforementioned seabirds and a range of small mammals, invertebrates and plants. As well as harming biodiversity, rats and ferrets affect the human community on Rathlin through transmission of diseases and damage to peoples’ homes and smallholdings.
The overall aim of the LIFE RAFT project is to eradicate rats and ferrets from Rathlin Island for the benefit of its SPA features and other key species such as corncrake.
The specific objectives of the project are:
- To protect the internationally important assemblage of breeding seabirds of the Rathlin Island SPA, while also enabling wider species recovery, by removing invasive non-native rats and ferrets. The project is expected to lead to a reversal of the declines that many seabird species have suffered on Rathlin in recent years, recolonisation of the island by seabirds that have gone extinct there, safeguarding of corncrake nesting attempts, and recovery of many other avian and non-avian species. The project also aims to build the resilience of the seabird assemblage to the impacts of oceanographic change and increasing human activity at sea;
- To contribute to the recovery of the Rathlin economy following the COVID-19 pandemic, and in the longer term to its maintenance and growth through the employment of local people and the use of local services during the project period, and through the creation of wider economic opportunities, e.g. eco-tourism due to the recovery of the island’s protected species;
- To enable the Rathlin community and visitors to learn about and take pride in the natural heritage of the island and play an active role in conserving it. The project will empower community members to lead on the biosecurity measures that will be required to ensure the legacy of the project, and on ensuring that visitors comply with these measures;
- To contribute to wider learning in island restoration by sharing the lessons learned during the project. This will include liaising with relevant conservation leaders throughout Europe, creating a lasting dialogue among island restoration experts in Northern Ireland, other parts of the UK, the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU; and
- To enhance the understanding of best practice for predator eradication on inhabited islands.
The project will contribute to the development and implementation of EU policy and legislation on nature and biodiversity, including the biodiversity strategy for 2030, the Birds Directive and the Invasive Alien Species Regulation. It will do so by removing the threat of invasive rats and ferrets from an internationally important seabird island and benefiting numerous Annex 1 and/or migratory bird species. Many of these species are ‘Red Listed’ at the EU and/or European level. The project will also contribute to the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, specifically Descriptor 2, which requires that ‘non-native species introduced by human activities are at levels that do not adversely alter the ecosystem’.
The main expected result is the removal of invasive rats and ferrets from Rathlin Island, providing the opportunity for long-term security and growth of the international seabird colony.
In the longer term, this change is expected to lead to:
- Increases in the populations of the ‘SPA species’ razorbill, kittiwake and guillemot;
- Improvements in the status of other elements of the SPA seabird assemblage, including puffin, fulmar, shag, eider, common gull, herring gull and lesser black-backed gull;
- Recolonisation of Rathlin by seabirds that have been driven to extinction there, such as Manx shearwater and black-headed gull;
- Possible (re)colonisation by the Annex 1-listed storm petrel (Hydrobates pelagicus), which is suspected but not known to have bred on Rathlin in the past;
- Increases in the populations of other species found on Rathlin Island, including the Annex I species corncrake and chough, as well as other terrestrial birds, small mammals, invertebrates and plants;
- Rathlin Island protected by effective biosecurity measures that are accepted and ‘owned’ by the island community;
- Community members no longer impacted by rats or ferrets, and benefiting economically both during the project (due to local employment and procurement) and in the longer term (e.g. due to increased tourism); and
- Increased understanding of the impacts of invasive non-native predators on fragile island ecosystems.