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Tuesday, 26 June, 2001, 23:48 GMT 00:48 UK
Puffins in peril on island paradise
Puffins have dramatically declined since the pre-war period
By the BBC's Jane O'Brien

Lundy Island in the UK's Bristol Channel is a paradise for rare birds.

More than 80% of the world's population of Manx shearwater can be found here and on the neighbouring isles of Skomer and Skokholm.

It also used to be one of the biggest puffin breeding grounds in Britain but for some reason its population of wild birds is declining.

Rats are big predators and can devastate bird colonies

Mike Bell
In 1939, there were 3,500 Puffin pairs but today there are only around 10.

Pollution, environmental changes and a lack of natural food could be part of the problem but rats are also being blamed as they prey on birds eggs. Puffins only lay one egg a year and nest within easy reach of the clifftop.

International expert Mike Bell has been called in from New Zealand to establish the size of the rat problem.

Huge problem

"There is quite a large rat population on the island but we don't know yet how it is affecting the birds," he said.

"In New Zealand, it's a huge problem on the island and we have had to eradicate them completely. Rats are big predators and can devastate bird colonies."

While he monitors rats, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is carrying out the first survey of shearwaters.

It is known that they roost on the island but their breeding patterns are unclear.

Ideal environment

Helen Booker uses an infrared camera to probe the burrows where the birds nest.

She says Lundy is an ideal environment for the birds and it is important to find out why they are moving away.

Colonies are extremely vulnerable and if there was any environmental disaster it would be a catastrophe for the shearwater

Helen Booker
"It would be wonderful if we could establish a bigger colony on the island as it would take the pressure off the other island breeding sites.

"They are extremely vulnerable and if there was any environmental disaster it would be a catastrophe for the shearwater."

Other predators are the greater black-backed gull which can swallow an adult puffin whole.

With so many rare birds on Lundy, it is vital the conservationists discover why populations are in decline.

If they do not find the answer, species like the puffin could be lost to the island forever.

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