New project to create northern safe haven for salmon, birds and water voles

New project to create northern safe haven for salmon, birds and water voles

A new wildlife conservation initiative aiming to protect nationally significant and economically important populations of salmon, water voles, and ground nesting birds like greenshank and lapwing, by creating a safe haven free of American mink in north Scotland is set to commence in April, it was announced today (1 February 2011).

Thanks to support from funders including Cairngorms, Highland, Moray, Rural Aberdeenshire and Rural Tayside LEADER Programmes 2007 and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) through the Species Action Framework, over £920,000 has now been raised to get the partnership initiative between Rivers and Fisheries Trusts of Scotland (RAFTS), Scottish Wildlife Trust, the University of Aberdeen, SNH and more than 16 other organisations, off the ground. 

Led by a project coordinator, the project will build on previous projects – such as the success of work in the Cairngorms led by the University of Aberdeen’s Professor Xavier Lambin* who is also invoved in this new project - and is set to appoint four regionally-based community officers covering the Highlands, rural Aberdeenshire, rural Tayside, and Moray and the Cairngorms.  

Chris Horrill, Project Development Manager for Rivers and Fisheries Trusts of Scotland (RAFTS), said:  “There are sound conservation and socio-economic aims behind our initiative.  This work must be carried out if we are to protect Scotland’s native wildlife and the communities and economies which rely on a thriving natural environment.   

“Invasive non-native species, like the American mink, damage our environment and the economy.  In north Scotland, an area which relies heavily on sustainable angling and shooting industries as well as wildlife tourism, we can’t afford to take the risk of losing parts of our biodiversity.

Rob Raynor, SNH’s species adviser and member of the project said: "This exciting project is the first stage of a strategic approach to managing the spread of mink in mainland Scotland and SNH is happy to be providing substantial financial support. 

“By building on previous successes in the Cairngorms and north east Scotland, the project will establish a strategic monitoring and control zone across the north, extending from the mid-Tay to the South Esk, around the east coast to the River Nairn, and across from Dornoch and Cromarty on the east to Ullapool on the west.  As we gradually establish areas free from mink, we hope to eventually expand the zone southwards in future. 

“The strategy relies on the involvement of volunteers and the local rivers & fisheries trusts, with their network of ghillies, water bailiffs and gamekeepers, who we believe are central to making this initiative a success."

Paul Gallagher, Habitats and Species Officer for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, added:  “This project will monitor the movements of the mink population using mink rafts to identify their footprints and hopes to maintain mink-free zones by strategically undertaking the minimum amount of control necessary and prevent further spread of American mink across the Highlands.  Establishing an alert system, made up of local land owners and volunteers, to ensure we can respond to animal movements in our target areas is essential to our success.  Animal welfare considerations will be paramount to our operations.

“The American mink is a non-native predator which, through its hunting of water voles, salmon, and bird eggs and chicks, contributes to the loss of Scotland’s biodiversity.  The decline or loss of these species could also impact negatively on local economies which depend on angling, shooting, or wildlife tourism.

“This initiative is as much about economic concerns as it is about ecological responsibility.  We are working to protect people’s livelihoods as well as our native wildlife.”  

*The new project announced today by the Scottish Wildlife Trust builds and expands upon work involving University of Aberdeen biologists. Professor Xavier Lambin led a major community drive to remove the mink from a vast area centred on the Cairngorms National Park and extending from the headwaters to the mouth of several river catchments

Following a three year endeavour - involving the help of 186 volunteers and many other stakeholders – all breeding mink have been removed from a 10,570km² area. This is the largest effort ever undertaken in the world to successfully remove an invasive species from the mainland. 

The project build on a sounds understanding of the biology of mink including their ability to disperse over large distance, as well as on an understanding of predator prey relationship developed by ecologists.

Signs are already in evidence of a return of the water vole, one of several species living along waterways and badly affected by this invasive species that spread throughout Britain since they escaped from fur farms from 1957 onward.

The Cairngorm project brought together scientists, policymakers and a range of stakeholders including the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Scottish Natural Heritage, local fisheries trusts, gamekeepers and local residents. Its main focus has been on eradicating American mink and conserving existing endangered water voles.

Specially designed ‘mink rafts’ were used to establish whether mink were in the area – the rafts featured a clay plate that displayed the footprints of any mink that had used it and were placed under a wooden tunnel. Volunteers adopted a raft to help protect their neighbourhood from the impact of mink. Traps were then set for mink found to be in the area.

Professor Lambin, Professor of Ecology, said: “We applied and refined ecological understanding of mink populations to optimise the conservation benefit derived from the efforts of a large coalition of volunteers keen to protect biodiversity in their local area.

“This kind of partnership has the potential to deliver sustainable conservation on an unprecedented scale, well beyond what government bodies alone can deliver.

“The main factor underpinning the success of this project was the involvement of volunteers.

“The project is a reason for optimism that the tide of non-native invasion can be rolled back on a large scale where the convergent interest of local communities can be harnessed.

“Much remains to be done but there is a huge amount of goodwill we can capitalise upon.”