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Bird-lovers’ island dream turns into immortal mouse nightmare

18 December 2021 - 14:26 By Bobby Jordan
Gough Island in the South Atlantic, where helicopter pilots bombarded the ground with poison pellets to stop mice preying on seabirds.
Gough Island in the South Atlantic, where helicopter pilots bombarded the ground with poison pellets to stop mice preying on seabirds.
Image: C Jone

A mouse has been spotted on Gough Island, prompting international alarm.

It is the first mouse sighted on the remote South Atlantic island, considered one of the most pristine areas on Earth, since the conclusion of world’s largest mouse-eradication programme earlier this year. 

The sighting suggests the programme has probably failed to completely eradicate a mouse population that killed an estimated two million seabird chicks and eggs annually.

“At this stage, without knowing if it’s a lone mouse or not, it’s hard to tell, but experience tells us it’s unlikely to be the only mouse out there,” said Anna Feeney, spokesperson for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) which is leading the eradication programme.

“One pregnant mouse can repopulate an island, but if nothing else we have bought these beautiful endangered birds some precious time to build their populations back up.”

SA staffs a research station on Gough and is a participant in the RSPB programme, supplying scientific personnel and technical assistance in the form of helicopters and the  research ship SA Agulhas II. 

Mice were accidentally introduced to the island by sailors in the 19th century but it was only in 2000/01 that they were found to be preying on the rare Tristan albatross population.

Feeney said a camera on the island detected a mouse on December 11. “We are doing everything we can to intercept the mouse seen and to ascertain if there are others,” she said.

“We will continue to monitor the island very closely and are hoping we’ll know more in the new year.”

News of the sighting emerged this week on the Gough Island Restoration Twitter feed: “We are devastated to share the news that a mouse has been seen on Gough following this year’s eradication attempt,” said the post, which elicited several concerned responses.

“Oh no. What is plan B? So worrying,” lamented Pamela Isdell. “Oh bugger. A lot less to search for than there were but I am hopeful for you and sorry at the same time,” said Sally Bain.

To combat the mice, the restoration team used a rodenticide that slowly biodegrades and does not leach into watercourses. The strategy had been successful at other locations, but scientists will now need to reassess its impact on Gough.

Gough is a Unesco World Heritage Site and one of the most import refuges for endangered seabirds. Historic pictures and film footage confirm the mice feed on birds many times their own body size, in some cases inflicting mortal injuries. 

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