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Killer Mice on UK Island Eating Birds to Extinction

CAMBRIDGE, UK, December 12, 2008 (ENS) – The Critically Endangered Tristan Albatross has suffered its worst breeding season ever, according to research by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The number of fledgling chicks has decreased rapidly and it is now five times lower than it should be because introduced predatory mice are eating the chicks alive on Gough Island. The South Atlantic territory of the United Kingdom is the species’ only habitat.

A complete survey of the Tristan Albatross on Gough Island in January showed there were 1,764 adult albatrosses incubating eggs. A later survey revealed that only 246 chicks had survived to fledging.

“Tristan Albatross is being hit by a double whammy. The chicks are predated by mice and the adults and juveniles are being killed by longline fishing vessels,” said John Croxall, chair of BirdLife’s Global Seabird Programme. “Unsustainable numbers are being killed on land and at sea. Without major conservation efforts, the Tristan Albatross will become extinct.”

“We’ve known for a long time that the mice were killing albatross chicks in huge numbers. However, we now know that the albatrosses have suffered their worst year on record,” said Richard Cuthbert, an RSPB scientist who has been researching the mice problem on Gough Island since 2000.

The mice are also wiping out another Gough Island bird species, says Cuthbert. “We also know that the mice are predators on the eggs and chicks of the Gough bunting and mice predation is the main factor behind their recent decline.”

Eradicating mice is the single action that would solve the primary conservation threat facing both species, say the bird experts.

Still, UK government funding to eradicate the mice is lacking. This is despite recognition from two prominent UK House of Common’s Committees that the “biodiversity found in the UK Overseas Territories is equally valuable and at a greater risk of loss” than that in the UK and that “current levels of funding are “grossly inadequate.”

The RSPB has been involved in a feasibility study to test whether it is possible to remove the mice. So far, the trials look promising, giving both species a more optimistic future. Funding of this year’s work on Gough has come from the Overseas Territory Environment Programme.

“Tackling alien invasives species in UK Overseas Territories is one of 10 Key Actions to prevent extinctions that BirdLife has highlighted in a new publication, “Critically Endangered Birds: a global audit,” said Richard Grimmett, BirdLife’s head of conservation.

“It is also attainable, the removal of rats from seabird islands has been conducted at many other sites across the world with great success,” he said.

Alistair Gammell, the RSPB’s International Director said, “It is essential that the UK Government commits adequate funding for the protection of the many threatened species found on the UK’s Overseas Territories. We are challenging the Government to prove its commitment to conservation by properly funding conservation initiatives in these territories, and most urgently to commit to funding the removal of mice from Gough.”

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