Looking for aliens on Orkney
The Field|November 2020
In the decade since its arrival, the stoat has wreaked havoc on the islands. Huge expense is now being incurred to remove it
IAN COGHILL
The news that the Orkney Native Wildlife Project, jointly led by RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and Orkney Islands Council, had spent £90,000 on training six dogs and their handlers to hunt stoats is, of itself, a bit of a showstopper. It reminded me of the context and how this extraordinary business typifies much that is wrong with the conservation industry and its inability to see beyond the money.

The Orkneys was a mammal-free zone when glaciation ended some 10,000 years ago. Nothing without wings or fins could get there, until, that is, human beings, that forever restless and inquisitive species, arrived in Neolithic times and decided that a few of their domestic animals might do quite nicely here. Sometime later, a migrant boat, probably from the Low Countries, had another mammal stowed away on board and it too found the island conducive to its needs. These stowaways were common voles, a species widely distributed in continental Europe but absent from Britain, where we have field voles, bank voles and even water voles but not the common vole. When, several millennia later, it was noticed that the unusually large voles found on Orkney were different from the mainland versions, they were christened, perhaps not very imaginatively, Orkney voles and are now seen as a ‘native species’.

Being characterised as a native species is of vital importance in the modern conservation industry. Native species are far less likely to be subjected to lethal control by NGOs than ‘non-native species’. The RSPB, for example, kills just about every mink it can lay its hands on but will not kill stoats, irrespective of the damage they might do, because they are native and the things they prey on have evolved to live, if sometimes precariously, alongside them.

Well, that used to be the case but it has changed. This is because the stoats have done what the Orkney voles’ ancestors did, and what the black rat, the house mouse and the brown rat have all done when they got the chance, and stowed away on a ship bound for pastures new. No one is suggesting that anyone was mad enough to introduce stoats to Orkney deliberately. What seems likely to have happened is that one or more pregnant female stoats stowed away, probably in a consignment of round bales, and found when they emerged that they were in a veritable promised land, full of oversize voles, no competition and no gamekeepers.

A PROBLEM ARISES

I first became aware that there was a problem, a small one at that time, when I met with some senior RSPB staff, shortly after I’d become chairman of GWCT in 2010. I soon learnt that many within the RSPB assume that because I shoot, my knowledge and potential usefulness to them is limited to killing things. Accordingly, they raised the issue of the Orkney stoat and exterminating them and, as a shooter red in tooth and claw, thought I ought to be able to help.

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