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Ascension Island Seabirds in the Ascendancy

Conservationist Wins Award

One of the world`s most important seabird colonies now has a brighter future thanks to an exciting and innovative project dedicated to boosting their numbers.

Ascension Island, a small, remote, volcanic island in the South Atlantic is rich in unique flora and fauna. At the time of its colonisation by Europeans in 1815, it was thought to host 20 million individual seabirds, including the Ascension Frigatebird, a globally threatened species found nowhere else in the world. Following a 98 per cent crash in numbers, the island seabird population is now only around 400,000 individuals, mostly confined to offshore stacks and inaccessible cliffs. The seabird population on the tropical UK Overseas Territory had been devastated by feral cats which were introduced onto the island in the early 19th Century to control introduced rats and mice.So far, the Ascension Seabird Restoration Project has encouraged 203 pairs of five species of seabird [11 species have been recorded], including Brown Noddies, Masked Boobies and Red-billed Tropicbirds, to return and nest on mainland Ascension Island. This early success has prompted the Marsh Conservation Trust to present Tara George, conservation officer of the Ascension Island Government Conservation Department, with this year`s Marsh Award for International Bird Conservation. The annual award is presented to those unsung heroes or heroines who have made an exceptional contribution to conservation.

The Ascension Seabird Restoration Project, assisted by the RSPB with ?500,000 funding from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has since 2001 removed feral cats from Ascension Island. Since February this year, no feral cats have been seen on the island, encouraging the prompt return of the seabirds. [The cats on Ascension Island were introduced in 1815 to control the populations of introduced rats and mice. Roaming wild, these cats quickly decimated populations of seabirds on the mainland, forcing most of the seabirds, except the colonially-nesting sooty tern, to nest on offshore stacks, principally Boatswainbird Island. The project needed to remove the cats from the island. The project gained the active support and co-operation of the islanders and the Ascension Island Society for the Protection of Cruelty Against Animals. The feral cats were destroyed in accordance with animal welfare guidelines.].

The island continues to be monitored intensively to ensure that feral cats don`t become re-established. [The project has worked with the local community to identify, register, microchip and, where necessary, sterilise pet cats, resulting in greater care of pets. Legislation was introduced through the project to prevent the reintroduction of cats to the island.]Tara George said: Many species on the UK Overseas Territories are threatened by non-native species. The project marks a landmark in conservation, as Ascension is the largest, inhabited island where feral cat removal has been attempted. I`m delighted to receive this award. It recognises the efforts that have been made on Ascension island and might provide encouragement to other conservationists battling to overcome seemingly insurmountable problems.

Speaking today, Foreign Office Minister Douglas Alexander, MP said: In 2001, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office provided the RSPB with funding for an important seabird restoration project on one of our Overseas Territories, Ascension Island. The project has been a great success and will make a crucial contribution to the conservation of the world`s breeding seabird populations and the natural history of the island. The British Government recognises the value of biodiversity and the part it plays in sustaining human life. We are committed to the target set at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, to significantly reduce the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010. And we continue to work in partnership with the Governments of the UK`s Overseas Territories to conserve and sustain their rich natural environments and their globally important biodiversity resources.Graham Wynne, the RSPB`s chief executive, said: The 14 UK Overseas Territories, including Ascension, are astoundingly rich in wildlife, including many species found nowhere else on earth. Put together they hold 34 species of globally-endangered birds, more than, Madagascar or Papua New Guinea. But, the impact on native wildlife from introduced species, particularly rats and cats, has been devastating. The RSPB has made a firm commitment to protect wildlife in the UK Overseas Territories and the success of the Ascension Seabird Restoration Project is proof that well designed and funded projects can provide new hope for threatened species. It will also support the development of Ascension`s emerging economy as the seabirds are a major attraction to tourists.

Tara George will receive the Marsh Award for International Bird Conservation from Mr Brian Marsh, of the Marsh Christian Trust*, on Tuesday 14 December at 5.45pm in the Map Room at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London.

*The Marsh Christian Trust was established in 1981 with the aim of providing long-term core funding to selected charities. The Marsh Award Scheme has emanated from the Trust`s desire to acknowledge individuals and sometimes groups of people for their dedicated commitment in their chosen field. The Scheme was formed in 1987. There are now 14 Marsh Awards, run in association with many partner charities.

4th July 2014