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Habitat Restoration Project gears up for final phase of airborne rodent eradication programme

An international effort to rid a southern Atlantic island of millions of rats and mice using a trio of helicopters is preparing for its third and final mission.

An 18-strong team led by a Scottish charity, the South Georgia Heritage Trust, will depart from the Falkland Islands on 15 January heading for the British overseas territory of South Georgia – home to one of the world's most important seabird habitats. Flight operations are scheduled to begin a month later.

The £7.5 million ($11.8 million) Habitat Restoration Project is the largest rodent eradication programme of its kind. “It aims to reverse the ecological destruction wrought by invasive rats and mice that were introduced inadvertently by sealers and whalers to this wildlife oasis over the last 200 years,” says project director Tony Martin. “The rodents prey on nests, eating the eggs and chicks of many native birds, and have spread right across the island because the glaciers are receding at an extraordinary pace,” he continues.

Three 30-year-old Airbus Helicopters Bo105s will spread 95t of rat poison across a 364km2 stretch of island using GPS tracking systems to keep an accurate record of bait coverage. The airborne operation is expected to last until the end of April.

The light twin-engined helicopters are expected to fly around 450h, distributing 260 bait pods from about eight forward operating bases that will be established on the island, says Martin.

Two previous missions, in 2011 and 2013, eradicated rodents from nearly two-thirds of South Georgia – equivalent to 705km2.

The final challenge is to complete the baiting of the entire island during the brief sub-Antarctic summer months, and this will be followed by two further years of monitoring.

“It is a man-made problem, but we have a solution in our grasp,” says Martin.

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