A mink control project in Sunart, Lochaber is being launched as part of a range of biodiversity improvements in the area.
The £90,000, three year project will judge the effectiveness of mink control and will be managed by Scottish Natural Heritage. The European Agricultural Guidance Fund (EAGGF) will also provide money to the project. Additional funds will come from partners in the Sunart Oakwoods Initiative, including forestry Commission, Highland Council and Lochaber Enterprise.
During the ground nesting bird season, none-lethal traps will be set and checked regularly and trapped mink will be dispatched humanely.
Worrying trends in declining bird populations on the Sunart islands and coastlines have been recognised by the Sunart Oakwoods Initiative. Common tern nests had totalled 330 whereas in 1998 just two nests were found. The invasion of American mink has been identified as one of the main reasons for the dramatic drop in bird breeding success. In 1998 there were 20 pairs of breeding common gulls spread throughout the Loch Sunart islands, but not one bird fledged from the nests. A report in that year by J Craik also revealed that birds which were familiar breeders in the loch have now almost or completely disappeared.
American mink are not native to Scotland. They escaped from fur farms in the 1960s and have been breeding in the wild for some time, causing brutal damage to wildlife and domesticated fowl. Swimming considerable distances, sizeable sea bird breeding colonies become their favoured foraging grounds. They are relentless in their pursuit for food.
In five years arctic tern colonies are three times higher in production where mink removal was focused. Four years of monitoring during mink control in the l990s in and around Loch Sunart and its islands also proved conclusively that continuous mink control benefits the bird colonies. The targeted, removal of mink plays a very important role when protecting and enhancing breeding seabird colonies and other wildlife.
Brian Eardley, SNH Area Officer in Fort William is pleased with the project. He said: "Helping to keep the Sunart islands and coastlines mink free should not only help alleviate mink problems at the fish farm but also give a real boost to the success of ground nesting birds and other natural heritage to be found on the island. Some local people have already been making a valuable contribution to controlling the mink population during the key ground nesting bird breeding season. It is a problem which needs a concerted and focused effort and it would be fantastic to get terns back to nesting on the islands and coasts."