In the Shiant Islands, it’s nearly time for the fledging of the razorbill chicks and I have the amazing good fortune to be spending a week here as part of a sabbatical from my usual work place of Glasgow. I’m swapping a basement office with bars on the windows for a small archipelago of islands in the Minch with spectacular basalt cliffs and boulder fields crammed with nesting razorbills and puffins.
My week begins in the rather less picturesque surroundings of the forecourt of a petrol station on the outskirts of Stornaway. I am here in a large shipping container with Charlie Main, the Shiants project manager, so that she can give me the most essential piece of island expedition equipment, the white plastic bucket.
Charlie gave me three buckets whose lids were labelled ‘carrots’, ‘eggs’ and ‘FRAGILE: horn speaker’. Each snapped closed with an extremely satisfying ‘clack’. Charlie explained the importance of packing all our food into the buckets to ensure no rats could sneak into our bags before the boat left the next day. I looked at the buckets and tried to imagine the mountain of shopping I had done earlier that day fitting into them, let alone the shopping list of food I needed to buy for the current project team in the middle of a 25 day shift on the islands.
I looked around the container, it was almost half filled with plastic buckets remarkably similar to those I’d taken, some piles reaching right to the ceiling. “They’re all the spare rat poison” said Charlie. I made a mental note to line my buckets with bin liners just in case.
Once in camp on the Shiants, the white plastic buckets are ubiquitous. There is no running water on the islands so we use one for handwashing, and one to catch the drips from the water container on the worktop, they are full of field equipment, food, bits and pieces. “The first winter of the project buckets were propping up the shelves in the cabin and we made a whole bed base out of them” says Jonny. Between the Bothy (the Nicholson’s house on the island, where we are staying) and the RSPB camp, directly behind, was a pile of 9 buckets wrapped in duck tape.
I get my induction on the ways of island life from John, a veteran of one Shiants winter and three summers. Biosecurity is everything – preventing a rat re-infestation – and so we need to ensure that nothing edible remains behind that the rats could eat. It is vital that, were a rat were to make landfall, their presence could be picked up by the monitoring stations left around the island. Back in Stornaway Charlie had shown me the thick brown pucks, shiny and smelling strongly of chocolate, which are used to monitor rats, the early warning system for a new colonisation. Rats find the chocolaty smell irresistible and will leave their gnaw marks on the wax but alternative food on the island distracts the rats from the bait stations. This means that all compostable waste needs to be taken off island in yet more white plastic buckets.
John finishes my induction into island life by introducing the toilet facilities. It turns out that human solid waste can, rather unspeakably, also distract the rats from the bait stations so that needs to be taken off island too. This means that we will be pooing into bags for the duration of our trip. The setup is relatively sophisticated, the system was developed by a charity for their work in developing countries. John takes me into the small gap between the two portacabins where a little tent is pitched. A toilet seat that clips over the biodegradable bag suspended over a bucket. When you’re done you just remove the bag, tie a knot in it and put it in a white plastic bucket. “It’s important to remove as much of the air as possible” says John helpfully.
I ask about how many white plastic buckets of poo they had removed from the island so far on their mission but, to my surprise, they haven’t been keeping a tally. “At one time we were trying to do a calculation of the weight of food we were bringing onto the island versus the weight of poo going off, but I don’t think we managed” said Jack, another of the Shiants team.
John nods towards the pile of duck-tape wrapped white plastic buckets behind the cottage. The Shiants Auk Ringing Group have just left and they filled an awful lot of buckets” says John. “We’re just going to have to start packing the poo down a bit tighter as we’re almost out of buckets.”
And suddenly I feel extremely glad that we have those extra multipurpose white plastic buckets. We’ll all be able to avoid the squishing of poo bags into buckets.
* I later asked John whether the poo buckets are the same buckets you used for the rat poison” . “No, no,” he said “They don’t allow us to put anything in the buckets that had the rat poison in, not even poo”.