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How about a ‘super stoat’ to rescue South Georgia’s penguins?

My Fantastical Beast for Unsprung is a Super Stoat. This is what he would look like.

I’ve been invited into the studios of BBC Springwatch for their indepth analysis programme, Unsprung. I was asked to bring in an idea for my ideal ‘fantastical animal or animal of the future’. I’m going to suggest a ‘Super Stoat’. Stoats are one of the few species that will kill rats – and rats are threatening to destroy one of my favourite species, the penguins of South Georgia. If I could breed a ‘super stoat’, one that would leave the birds alone and just kill the rats, it would be perfect for this job. How do you like the cloak I’ve put over my painting to illustrate my super stoat, pictured above?

This is the actual print.

Stoat, painted by Robert E Fuller

The wealth of wildlife in Antarctica is breathtaking as anyone who has been watching David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet series on BBC1 will know. But the survival of some of its species is under threat thanks to rats that were introduced inadvertently more than 100 years ago by whalers and sealers. This year scientists came up with, and have already begun to put into practice, one of the most ambitious conservation plans in history. They aim to eradicate all rodents from the island of South Georgia, which is host to the world’s most unique bird colonies.

In September, 2011 I was invited to a ceremony at the House of Lords hosted by Baroness Young of Old Scone and attended by HRH Princes Anne to mark the early success of the campaign. It is the biggest rodent eradication campaign in history and I was fascinated to meet some of the scientists behind the project. No-one really knows how many rats inhabit the island in the South Atlantic, but it could be millions and they have had a devastating impact on local seabird populations.

HRH Princess Anne at a ceremony to support a project to eliminate rats from South Georgia.

Rats eat the chicks of ground-nesting seabirds. They take them alive, some of them chicks several times their size such as albatrosses, petrels, or prions. Rat eradication has been tried on other islands around the world, notably off New Zealand and Australia – but nothing on the scale being attempted in South Georgia. Ordinarily, such a campaign would be impossible; such is the size of the landmass and the number of rats present. But the 100-mile-long sub-Antarctic island is marked by numerous glaciers that divide up the territory into convenient killing zones that can be cleared one by one.

The rats cannot cross the ice tongues and so conservationists can be sure rodents from neighbouring zones will not re-infest baited areas at a later date. Some 50 tonnes of rodenticide was dropped on the island by helicopters in March. The helicopter pilots used GPS systems which guided them up and down the breadth of the zones so that not a single patch was missed. The drop represented just the first phase in the project, and covered a mere 13% of the rat-infested land area of South Georgia. Nonetheless, the South Georgia Heritage Trust says it has been hugely encouraged by the results. It claims 100% success in the area baited.

My visit to the island in 2007 was one of the most breathtaking of my career as a wildlife artist. I landed at Salisbury Plain which is host to the world’s largest king penguin colony. There are 200,000 birds there, and nearby St Andrew’s Bay hosts some 100,000. These magnificent birds are, at least, abundant. In fact I could barely cross the beach at St Andrew’s Bay without tripping over a penguin, or seal, and in fact I actually witnessed a moment of ‘beach rage’ on the overcrowded sands.

I saw a king penguin slap an elephant seal with his flipper as he tried to get passed it to the water’s edge. It was quite an astounding moment. The penguin lashed out in irritation as it tried to pick its way through the crowded beach. But it quickly realised its mistake when the half-tonne elephant seal roared back at it. And, realising it had picked on someone several times its size, the penguin slunk off to take the long way round. But despite the crowds on the beaches, these populations are as nothing compared to the days before industrial sealers and whalers used the British protectorate as a base for their ships and processing plants.

Beach Rage: A king penguin gets short shrift for slapping an elephant seal.

And some species have plunged into serious decline. The South Georgia Heritage Trust is particularly concerned about the South Georgia Pipit, the most southerly songbird on the planet; and the South Georgia Pintail, a duck species found only on South Georgia. Inevitably, the programme has involved some collateral damage in the form of birds and other wildlife also consuming the rat bait. But the shape, colour and size of pellets used have been carefully designed to minimise accidental deaths.

These losses have to be set against the benefits to nesting populations that will accrue in the years ahead and I for one shall be supporting the plan as it enters its second phase next year.

Of course if only my ‘super stoat’ could bounce in to the rescue, none of this would be necessary. Stoats are special in other ways too and I didn’t only choose them for their ability to kill rats. I have really enjoyed watching how agile stoats are via cameras hidden in my garden and I think they make great ‘super animals’. How do you like the picture, featured below, of one?

Stoat, art print by Robert E Fuller
Sitting Pretty, Stoat Art Print by Robert E Fuller. Click to buy.

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