Heacham man in South Georgia

Ray Thirkettle in Antarctica ANL-141121-145727001

Ray Thirkettle in Antarctica ANL-141121-145727001

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If Heacham electrician Ray Thirkettle expected his 13-month stint with the British Antarctic Survey on a remote island 900 miles east of the Falklands to be quiet he got a big surprise.

Our Man in South Georgia found himself part of a BBC News event – the world’s largest and most ambitious rat eradication project.

Ray had joined the BAS team as an electrical technician in November, as we reported in the Lynn News.

South Georgia is a UK overseas territory at the southern end of the South Atlantic and he had previously spent four months there with the team in 2012. The rat eradication project has been under way for more than five years and this is the last of three bait-spreading stages.

Here is Ray’s eye-witness account:

The tranquillity of South Georgia was shattered in January by the arrival of three clattering helicopters, a truck (now there are two vehicles on the island!) and 18 extra people, almost doubling our population!

The South Georgia Rat Eradication Project would actually be impossible if it was not for a lucky feature of topography. Impenetrable glaciers split the island into sections, over which rats cannot cross, so parts of the island can be cleared without the fear of re-colonisation from other areas.

However, climate change is causing these natural barriers to retreat, adding a sense of urgency to the project. It is important to clear the rats before they are able to spread to other rat-free locations.

Rats and mice were unwittingly introduced to the island by sealing and whaling ships as early as the 19th century and have caused devastation to the native bird population.

Like most island birds, those that breed on South Georgia are ground-nesting and have no defence from the predation of rats, who eat the eggs and even kill and devour the chicks once hatched.

Rats have destroyed tens of millions of birds’ eggs and chicks since their unwitting introduction.

This is the eradication programme’s third and final phase. 90 tons of a special bait were dropped from hoppers slung underneath their three helicopters, requiring 300 drums of fuel and projected to take at least two months. 

However, the weather on South Georgia can be very severe and is very quick to change so despite the skill and experience of the helicopter pilots, there can be many days where flying is not safe.

The most telling indicator of success is a noticeable increase in some bird species. The South Georgia Pintail and South Georgia Pipit (the world’s most southerly songbird) are now seen in numbers.

Petrel and Prion species are expected to follow and the long term hope is that many Albatross species will return to South Georgia to breed.

Another Ray of hope from down under!

You can follow Ray’s progress here http://garethcalway.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/yes_25.html

You can also find out more at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-30922255