How the RSPB’s hunt for stoats on Orkney is now a wild goose chase

by Ben O’Rourke

In 2010, stoats mysteriously turned up on Orkney, perhaps as stowaways on lorries carrying hay for farmers to feed their cattle in winter. 

A single stoat invader was returned to mainland Scotland and released somewhere with “a suitable habitat and prey for stoats”, where it would not have a bad effect on the local environment, a person involved told the BBC.

Another said the stoats could have been released deliberately.

The potential danger of fast-breeding stoats moving to the islands was immediate. It “sparked fears for the rare wild bird population”, said the same BBC report.

Former chairman of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust Ian Coghill spoke to senior Royal Society for the Protection of Birds staff at the time. 

“I suggested that it would be a good idea to ask the SGA – Scottish Gamekeepers Association – who is the best gamekeeper out of a job? approach him or her and say we’ll give you a cottage on Orkney, we’ll give you a vehicle, all the kit you could possibly want and a great big bonus when you catch the last stoat. And they said, ‘No, you don’t understand, we’re going to live-trap them and put them back on the mainland’. So I said: it seems odd that you’ve got a big problem and you’re going to use the least efficient method to deal with it. But they own a big chunk of Orkney so they can deal with it and I left them to it.”

Ian Coghill: 'They could have eradicated stoats on Orkney for a few hundred thousand pounds 10 years ago'

“I did point out then you might as well kill them because if you release them where there’s already a stoat population, the resident stoats will kill them. If you release them where there isn’t a stoat population, they’re not going to live because if stoats could live there, they’d already be there. So you might just as well kill them, but they said I didn’t understand because they constantly say I don’t understand.”

For a few years, nothing happened more than volunteer trappers killing catching and killing stoats. In 2015, Scottish Natural Heritage – now known as Nature.Scot – said it would cost £500,000 and take up to five years to solve the stoat problem. But, said SNH, someone else would have to help pay for it. 

Two years later, the Orkney Native Wildlife Project was set up by SNH and RSPB and was applying for a £3 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland to get rid of the stoats. At the same time it was given £64,500 in lottery money.

“When I heard they were going to get a grant of £64,000 for the stoats I though that sounds cheap,” says Ian. “Then I found out the £64,000 was to write the plan.”

At the time, there was no plan, according to an article in the Herald, including no agreement on how to kill the stoats. The newspaper insisted stoats were “accomplished predators and pose a serious threat to the islands’ wildlife, including the native Orkney vole”.

How voles got to Orkney is another mystery. One suggestion is they were stowaways on boats full of hay to feed livestock belonging to Neolithic farmers.

By 2018, the grant for stoat eradication was suddenly doubled to about £6 million, with extra funds from the EU. However, progress in the extermination plan was slow.

“Ten years later, they’ve got €7 million (approximately £6 million),” says Ian. “Now, I don’t know what you could do with £6 million for conservation, but they could have eradicated stoats on Orkney for a few hundred thousand pounds 10 years ago. Now they’re getting £6 million and they may or may not succeed. That’s not my fault or your fault. It’s the fault of the people who sat there and watched it.”

In an interview with Fieldsports Britain in 2019, ONWP head Sarah Sankey agreed.

“It would have been easier if we’d got rid of the stoats when they first arrived,” she said. “We could have done a small incursion response and got rid of the stoats but we had neither the skill nor the understanding back then which we have developed.” 

Sarah Sankey: 'It would have been easier if we’d got rid of the stoats when they first arrived'

In the meantime, more problem wildlife have appeared on the island. Greylag geese have taken up residency and are now nesting on Orkney in the tens of thousands, damaging crops and polluting water. The RSPB refuses to do anything about them.

Farmers are furious. They point to the greylag breeding and roosting grounds, which are mainly on protected RSPB reserves. Some speculate that the geese are pushing native bird species off nesting and feeding sites. They point out that the estimated 24,000 greylags are not native, because they have only been resident on the island in numbers in the last 15 years. The population started to build about 30 years ago and is now at unsustainable levels. 

The result is a breakdown of trust between farmers and the RSPB’s Orkney Native Wildlife Project, which is in charge of trapping stoats. Some farmers are refusing to allow the ONWP to put stoat traps on their land, pointing out that there are bigger threats to native species than stoats, such as corvids, gulls… and geese.

Goose guides like Steve Rogers clear geese from farms, often voluntarily. During the UK’s greylag gooseshooting season, 1 September – 31 January, he takes parties of guns from all over the world on shooting expeditions.  

When talking to us, Sarah Sankey appeared to suggest the farmers move away from agriculture: “The geese are causing some considerable agricultural damage for the farmer. We do understand the stoat is having less issues but of course in Orkney last year (2018) £49 million came into the county through tourism and we know the wildlife is most important reason for people coming to Orkney so if you have the wildlife and we know from experience and from research and experience in New Zealand the stoats stay, they are going to devastate local wildlife. So there is an impact there and a lot of people have diversified into tourism – self-catering cottages and such.”

Sarah Sankey is head of the Orkney Native Wildlife Project

Ian Coghill is chairman of the Coordinated Upland Partnership and author of Moorland Matters

Beth Wells is a specialist at Moredun Research Institute and author of Cryptosporidium prevalence in calves and geese co-grazing on four livestock farms surrounding two reservoirs supplying public water to mainland Orkney, Scotland

Steve Rogers runs of OrkneyShootingHolidays

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