The Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSCSSI) has announced the completion of the first phase of the eradication of reindeer from the island of South Georgia.
The first phase of the project, which ran throughout January and February 2013, saw the removal of over 1.900 animals from the Busen area (one of two peninsulas on South Georgia that were inhabited by reindeer).
Norwegian whalers introduced the reindeer to two parts of the island in the early 1900s and Norwegian expertise has been instrumental in their demise. Reindeer numbers increased after whaling ceased in the mid-1960s and they have had a devastating impact on the island's vegetation, with knock-on effects on native bird species.
In January and February 2013 a group of Norwegian experts, including indigenous Sami herders and expert marksmen, joined GSGSSI staff to undertake the £500,000 first phase.
Depending on the terrain, one of two methodologies was utilised. In central areas, the team of Sami reindeer experts gathered the reindeer into a corral where they were humanely killed under veterinary supervision. In outlying areas, where the terrain meant it was not possible to herd animals, animals were shot by experienced marksmen from the Norwegian Nature Inspectorate (SNO).
Meat was recovered from approximately half of all animals that were killed, and proceeds from the sale of the meat will partially offset some of the costs of the eradication.
Small numbers of reindeer may have been missed by the operation, but are likely to be spotted from South Georgia Heritage Trust helicopters that are now dropping rat bait over the Busen area. Skilled marksmen will shoot any remaining reindeer that are spotted.
In parallel with the removal of reindeer, several scientific research projects were undertaken, including the establishment of long-term monitoring programmes of plants, birds and invertebrates to track the recovery of the island's systems after the eradication. It is encouraging that only a few weeks after the removal of the reindeer there are already good signs that the vegetation is recovering.
In addition to the work on the Busen area, the SNO marksmen made a start on the larger Barff Peninsula and shot over 1500 animals from remote locations. It is thought that over 1500 animals remain in the Barff area and this work will be completed in January and February 2014.
The eradication of reindeer is one of a number of projects (including eradication of rats, mice and non-native plants) that are designed to safeguard the native species, habitats and landscape of the unique environment of South Georgia. Commissioner Nigel Haywood who recently visited the island to witness the project first hand said: This represents a very important landmark in our efforts to safeguard the native fauna of South Georgia.
GSGSSI CEO Martin Collins, who was on the island overseeing the project, said: The combination of reindeer and rat eradications will help return South Georgia to a more natural state. We expect to see a rapid recovery in vegetation, invertebrate populations and, in particular, ground nesting birds.