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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 February 2008, 23:57 GMT
Smelling a rat on remote Scottish isle

By Colin Blane
BBC News

St Kilda is a magical place, grand and imposing, home to more than half a million seabirds who have no land-based predators when they come to nest here.

Puffin with fish in beak
St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides is home to 250,000 puffins

St Kilda is also an offshore outpost - 50 miles by boat from the Western Isles - so it usually takes quite an effort to get here.

That's partly because the small island group is often lashed by Atlantic storms, which is what happened last Friday.

And it was during the height of the storm that the Spanish fishing boat Spinningdale was washed across Village Bay off Hirta, the main island of St Kilda, and battered against the cliffs.

The rescue of the 14 crew members wasn't the end of the drama because fears were soon expressed about what else might have been on board the Spinningdale - rats.

Wax traps

The reason for this concern is the possibility any rats landing on the St Kilda island group could cause serious damage not only to the seabird colony but also to St Kilda's unique variety of mice.

The National Trust for Scotland, which has owned St Kilda since 1957, sent its own team to tackle the problem.

The Spinningdale. (Pic: PA/MCA)
Rats could easily make it to land and start eating chicks and eggs

Their national species recovery officer, Abbie Patterson, has been setting traps with bait made of chocolate-flavoured candle wax. The idea is that rodents nibbling the bait will leave teeth marks in the wax.

Ms Patterson said: "We'll know if the bait attracted the local mice which are harmless, but we'll also know if any rats have come ashore."

If there were any rats on board the Spinningdale, it would be easy for them to abandon the sinking ship. The trawler is hard against the cliff face, wedged in by the Atlantic swell.

Delicate balance

The threat to the seabird colony isn't something the National Trust for Scotland is taking lightly - St Kilda is home to 250,000 puffins, 30,000 pairs of gannets as well as large numbers of fulmar and storm petrels.

It has always been a place delicately balanced.

In 1840 the last UK great auk died here. It has been uninhabited since 1930. Now the National Trust is hoping the shipwreck won't disturb the ecology of their fragile jewel.

One of the things that makes St Kilda special is its remoteness. Far from humankind, the birds have a sanctuary of their own.

My sea crossing on a fast motor cruiser took three hours and during our first attempt, one passenger broke his ankle and another became so seasick he couldn't continue.

And all this on a day our skipper Angus Campbell told us the weather was better than it usually is in summer.

Rats probe under way on St Kilda
05 Feb 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Salvage studies on stricken boat
02 Feb 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Island fears over 'trawler rats'
02 Feb 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Crew rescued from stricken boat
01 Feb 08 |  Highlands and Islands

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