Last push for entry permissions to guard Orkney’s native wildlife and economic system

The Orkney Native Wildlife Project is making a final appeal to landowners across the Orkney Mainland and the linked isles to give the Project access permission in order to safeguard Orkney’s wildlife and economy.

The Project, which has created more than 25 full-time jobs in Orkney since it began last year, has already secured access permission from over 750 landowners in its bid to protect Orkney’s native wildlife – which is one of the key drivers of Orkney’s £70 million tourism industry – from the threat of invasive non-native stoats.

It is now looking for the go-ahead from the final 30 or so landowners believed necessary to complete the initial eradication network.

Final efforts are also underway to identify who to contact regarding areas of land where owners remain unknown or where they are under common grazing and folk are being encouraged to contact the Project team directly to provide information.

Thanks to support from more than 750 of Orkney’s landowners, traps have been deployed across the majority of the Orkney Mainland and the linked isles. However, efforts to secure all the land access needed have been hampered by delays due to Covid-19 and by concerns from some local landowners particularly related to management of geese in Orkney.

Short-eared Owl, copyright Glyn Sellors, from the surfbirds galleries

The Project is now asking those landowners to “join the hundreds of others helping protect Orkney’s future” in a bid to secure the final access needed to complete the roll-out of the eradication trap network.

Stoats are native to the UK Mainland but not to Orkney, where they were first recorded in 2010. Since then, the stoat population has increased and spread throughout Mainland Orkney and the linked isles including Burray and South Ronaldsay.

Stoats pose a very serious threat to Orkney’s native wildlife particularly the Orkney vole, hen harrier, short-eared owl and other ground nesting birds for which the islands are internationally important and upon which Orkney’s thriving wildlife tourism industry relies.

In 2019-20, tourism brought £70 million into the Orkney economy and nearly 50% of visitors spend time watching birds and other wildlife. Any significant loss of natural heritage could have a dramatic impact on revenue generated from tourism placing increased economic pressure on businesses already reeling from the impacts of the global pandemic and the subsequent dramatic decline in income from tourists.

Stoats also pose a threat to free-range poultry farming and in the longer-term could pose an indirect economic threat to Orkney’s farmers too. The current system of agri-environment funding is awarded on a points system with farmers in Orkney being awarded more points for being in a priority area for wildlife. Should the area become less important for wildlife (for example because of the impact of stoats) it could have a large impact on the funding received across the county each year.

Orkney’s nature also has a vital role for supporting the health and wellbeing of those living on the islands. Many people have become more aware of nature during the pandemic and connecting with it has helped people cope in these uncertain and difficult times. With changes in travel habits and ongoing restrictions likely to continue, local nature will be even more vital.

Stoats have had devastating impacts as non-native species elsewhere in the world including in New Zealand where they are implicated in the extinction of three species. The Orkney Native Wildlife Project is determined to not let the same thing happen in Orkney by working with landowners and local communities to successfully eradicate stoats and put measures in place to prevent them returning.

As part of the efforts to remove stoats, a network of approximately 7000 trap boxes is needed across Mainland Orkney and the linked isles along with a network of ‘biosecurity traps’ along the mainland coast and on other islands to prevent stoats spreading.

So far, more than 5,000 trap boxes have been deployed and another 500 or so are in the process of being deployed on land where access has been granted. The Project is aiming to have secured land access and deployed all trap boxes by the end of 2020.

With help from the NFUS (National Farmers Union, Scotland), Scottish Agricultural College and SGRPID (Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate), a Land Access Protocol was developed which guides how access will be taken on land with minimal disturbance to landowners and their activities.

Speaking on behalf of the Project, Sarah Sankey said: “We are incredibly grateful to the many hundreds of land owners who have chosen to help safeguard the future of Orkney’s native wildlife and in turn our local economy and wellbeing by granting permission for traps on their land. We are hoping that the final few outstanding requests for permission will soon be granted allowing the team to complete the eradication trap network. We understand that some people still have concerns and urge people to talk to us so we can find a mutual resolution. Only by working together can we protect the future of our unique and wonderful islands.”

Graham Sinclair, Orkney Islands Council’s chair of Infrastructure and Development, said: “This project is already generating considerable economic benefit for Orkney – at an extremely difficult time for our economy. More than 25 full-time and many seasonal jobs have already been created when others in Orkney are under threat. This includes four additional posts that were advertised recently.

This is significant in itself. In addition, our tourism industry and wider economy will benefit greatly if the diversity of our native wildlife is protected. This is an important goal. The ground-nesting birds and other wildlife at risk from stoats are highly valued, not just by visitors, but by many in our local community. I hope the project team can negotiate sufficient access for their network of traps to enable an effective eradication.”

The Orkney Native Wildlife Project is a partnership between RSPB Scotland, NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage), and Orkney Islands Council, with generous support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and EU LIFE. It aims to safeguard the unique and internationally important native wildlife of Orkney now and into the future by removing stoats from Orkney.

People can get in touch with the Project by emailing [email protected] News and updates are also available on the Orkney Native Wildlife Project Facebook page at www.facebook.com/OrkneyNativeWildlifeProject.

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