A deadly threat to Blasket birds

THE worst fears people had for wildlife on the Great Blasket Island have been realised, following confirmation that deadly mink have appeared on the island, off the Dingle Peninsula.

The big danger is they could wreak havoc among the ground nesting Manx shearwaters, of which an estimated 3,500 pairs are to be found on the Blaskets.

The west Kerry branch of BirdWatch Ireland has reported upwards of a dozen mink have been trapped on the island since last October, thanks to the work of leading currach builder Eddie Hutchinson who has been using traps provided by wildlife rangers.

Eddie believes the problem may be resolved by now as he has not caught a mink for a number of weeks. He found the remains of birds, rabbits and hares under a sheet of plastic after the marauding mink. Rabbits are to be seen again around the deserted houses and fields and that’s a good sign.

Local people are baffled as to how the mink got onto the island, with some claiming it would be impossible for them to swim three miles from the mainland across the difficult currents in the Blasket Sound.

However, naturalist and veteran film-maker Eamon de Buitléir, who knows the Blaskets well, thinks they could make it, citing examples of mink swimming long distances over lakes to get to water hens. Other experts, including some senior officials of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, feel the mink may have been deliberately introduced.

Mr de Buitléir, however, said he could not see how someone would be foolish enough to do something like that. “But, you never know what people can get up to. I remember many years ago how ferrets were introduced to the Saltee Islands, in Wexford, to get rid of rabbits. Foxes were also put onto the Saltees, but neither the foxes nor the ferrets survived there,” he said.

At an oral planning hearing into a proposal to build a café on the Great Blasket, held last August, the danger of rats getting onto the island was highlighted by BirdWatch Ireland. The worry was that rats could get into boats bringing materials to the island, according to Siobhán Egan, of BirdWatch Ireland.

But, nobody mentioned mink which are probably an even more serious threat to the Great Blasket — one of a cluster of eight large islands, in south-west Kerry, that form a world important ‘supercolony’ for Manx shearwaters and storm petrels.

Under EU legislation, the island is a Special Protection Area (SPA), covered by both the birds and habitats directives because of its seabirds. Other species found there include puffins, chough, kittiwake and fulmar.

The much-travelled Mr de Buitléir suggested something practical could be done to ensure rats and other pests do not come over on boats.

While filming recently in Bermuda, he noticed how boats were not allowed berth on the islands under the terms of a conservation programme.

Instead, boats had to offload onto inflatable craft which then brought goods and people ashore. “Rats are a constant danger and I think it would be a good idea to have a similar system here,” he remarked.

Mr de Buitléir, who was once stranded for five days on the Great Blasket, became widely known to television viewers through his Amuigh Faoin Spéir series in the 1960’s and ’70s.

He is the last surviving member of the team that made the acclaimed RTÉ series of wildlife programmes for which the renowned Gerrit Van Gelderen did the illustrations.

Mink, famous for the once-fashionable coats made from their fur, are to be found all over Ireland at this stage. American in origin, they were first brought here when fur-producing, mink farms were being set up in the 1950’s.

Some escaped from the farms, or were deliberately set free, and became easily established in the wild. About the size of a house cat and a member of the weasel family, they are found along rivers and lakes and attack both domestic and wild birds. They also kill fish.

The Coolwood Wildlife Park, in Killarney, and rainbow trout rearing cages, in Inchigeela, Co Cork, have also been attacked by mink.

They are are also a major threat in parts of Britain and an eradication programme has been underway for several years in the Scottish Hebrides.

The mink population there was estimated at between 10,000 and 15,000, which poses a huge threat to wildlife in and around the islands.

At present, a research programme into the spread of mink in Ireland is being carried out by a team in University College Galway.

Mink have few, if any, natural enemies in Ireland, which probably explains why they have spread so prolifically around the country. Eagles are believed to prey on mink but, ironically, eagles reintroduced to Donegal and Kerry have been subjected to poisoning.


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