Loch Creran ‘hotel’ project on course to rejuvenate tern numbers
IT HAS comfy bedrooms, a safe environment for the kids and easy access to gourmet foods amid beautiful surroundings.
Welcome to the new Loch Creran ‘hotel’, built in a remote part of the Argyll loch, especially for common terns, as part of a project to restore seabird numbers on the west coast of Scotland.
A former scientist, Clive Craik, and a retired teacher, Rob Lightfoot, have converted discarded mussel farm rafts into a haven for the birds, following decimation of many colonies by marauding mink. The pair are now anticipating a record year for chicks after the design of the rafts was refined to provide a perfect retreat for bringing up young.
The rafts include grassy tufts for nesting, set on a layer of pebbles to recreate a natural rocky beach environment, as well as high fences to keep out wily and agile predators.
Almost 800 eggs have been laid this year – the first hatched on Monday – and it is hoped chick numbers will surpass the 400 that fledged in 2011. From just one adult breeding pair on the rafts in 1996, there are now more than 350 pairs.
Craik and Lightfoot decided to take action after monitoring the health of seabird colonies on 150 uninhabited islands from Mallaig to West Loch Tarbert and noting a steady decline over the last 20 years. Today, around 40 per cent of the islands have no breeding birds left, with predation by American mink, a species originally imported for fur farming, one of the main factors.
Craik, 69, of Barcaldine, near Oban, said: “Mink have changed everything on these 150 islands. At the start, we used to ring 6,000 birds a year, but now it’s only 1,000 a year.
“Despite a variety of setbacks and disasters, numbers are growing again and the project has become a huge success for conservation and biodiversity.”
It occurred to Craik that it might be easier to control mink on regularly monitored rafts than on a host of scattered islands, and so the tern breeding project started in 1996, when North Argyll shellfish farmer Roger Thwaites donated a derelict mussel raft to the cause.
There was joy in the first year, when one pair of terns nested and one chick fledged. But the next few years saw the men’s hopes dashed by a series of mink invasions that killed some chicks while others were abandoned to die.
Nesting pairs rose to 80 in 2004, when 109 chicks fledged, but the following year saw another mink attack and for three years in succession no chicks survived.
Lightfoot, 58, from Scammadale, Argyll, began adapting the rafts until two years ago, when he completed a major redesign from scratch, creating two deluxe and virtually predator-proof breeding grounds. A third raft, occupied by nesting terns, awaits modifications after this year’s breeding season is over.
“It’s quite an interesting work area [on the loch] as it presents challenges. If you drop a tool it’s gone forever,” said Lightfoot.
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
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