After many years of planning, and two field seasons on the ground, the main part of the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, SGSSI, Reindeer Eradication Project is now all but done, according to the latest South Georgia newsletter. An estimated 3.140 animals have been sacrificed over a six-week period.
Six expert marksmen from the Norwegian Nature Inspectorate (SNO) spent several weeks, up to mid-February, working on the removal of the remaining deer on the Barff Peninsula. The marksman were based in tented field camps and supported by the GSGSSI fisheries patrol vessel the Pharos SG.
Despite challenging terrain and some of the worst summer weather in recent years, the marksmen completed systematic searches of all areas with reindeer and shot 3,140 more animals on the Barff over the six-week period this year. Due to a lack of alternative travel options, all the marksmen had to leave together instead of having a smaller party remain for a further two weeks to recheck cleared areas. As a result at least eight reindeer are known to remain and will be dealt with in the coming months.
Reindeer were introduced to South Georgia in the early 1900s as a source of sport and fresh meat for the whalers and their removal will lead to a rapid recovery of vegetation and improved habitat for breeding birds.
Reindeer are voracious grazers and have had a devastating impact on the island’s vegetation, with knock-on effects on native burrowing seabird communities. One of the concerns, had the herds been allowed to remain longer, was the risk, due to retreating glaciers, that they may extend their range into new areas.
Reindeer numbers had increased dramatically since the initial introduction of a few tens of reindeer in the early 1900s. The Reindeer Eradication Project saw the humane removal of over 6,600 reindeer from South Georgia.
The combined cost of phase I and II of the eradication was around £900,000 and was funded by GSGSSI. Some of those costs were offset by the sale of meat products recovered during the first phase of the operation.
Alongside the work to remove reindeer, several scientific research projects were undertaken, including the collection of samples for genetic analysis and filming for behavioral research. Science teams have also continued to monitor vegetation and bird communities to track the recovery of the island’s systems after the eradication and, although it will take a number of years for the full benefits of the eradication to be realized, there are early signs of vegetation recovery in the Busen area, which has now been free from reindeer for almost a year.
The eradication of reindeer is one of a number of projects that are designed to safeguard the native species, habitats and landscape of the unique environment of South Georgia. With the main phase of the reindeer eradication complete, the way is now open for the South Georgia Heritage Trust (SGHT) to begin the third and final phase of their rat eradication project in 2015.
GSGSSI Chief Executive Martin Collins, 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”.