ORKNEY is to cull its entire stoat population after funding was pledged to protect the islands’ native wildlife.

Plans for the largest stoat eradication project of its kind anywhere in the world will be put in place after £64,600 of lottery money was granted to the project.

The animals first appeared in Orkney in 2010 and are now found throughout mainland Orkney, Burray and South Ronaldsay.

They are accomplished predators and pose a serious threat to the islands’ wildlife, including the native Orkney vole.

Lottery funding of £64,600 has now been awarded to help The Orkney Native Wildlife Project develop its plans.

It is a partnership between Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and RSPB Scotland which next year will apply for a full grant of more than £3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland.

It has not yet been decided how best to cull the animals, but different humane methods are now to be trialled.

Nick Halfhide, SNH’s director of operations, said: “Orkney is spectacularly important for wildlife, and wildlife tourism is key to the local economy.

“Stoats are a major threat to the islands’ natural and cultural heritage and this project brings a partnership approach to supporting and securing the future of Orkney’s important native wildlife.”

It is not clear how the stoat population ended up in the island group, although there are theories they may have come with hay or straw bales or been intentionally released to control rabbits.

They feed on small birds, eggs and small mammals and therefore pose a threat to poultry, the Orkney vole and many birds which are part of Orkney’s thriving wildlife tourism industry.

The islands are home to more than one-fifth of the UK’s breeding hen harriers, internationally important numbers of seabirds and one of the few places in the UK in which waders such as curlews are still a common breeding species.

Martin Harper, director of global conservation for the RSPB, said: “Invasive non-native species are one of the greatest threats to wildlife around the world and are implicated in the majority of bird extinctions to date.

"We know successful eradications can secure the future of island populations and we are delighted to have secured funding to help the partnership safeguard the future of the Orkney vole and so many internationally important populations of birds in Orkney.”

During the nine-month development phase the partnership will consult widely with the local community and stakeholders and develop activities that will ensure Orcadians can be involved in helping native wildlife thrive.

The project will remind many of one of SNH’s most controversial episodes.

In 2002 SNH sparked outraged by announcing a cull of hedgehogs to protect the internationally important populations of wading birds in North Uist, Benbecula and South Uist. But it was later established that the animals could be successfully relocated to the mainland.

A spokeswoman for One Kind campaign group said it was true the likes of the Orkney vole and other native species would be vulnerable to predation by stoats. “But we would always counsel against any rush to culling,” she said.

Meanwhile, John Bryant, wildlife consultant to Animal Aid, added: “We would prefer them to spend money campaigning against pheasants and grouse being bred so they can shot out of the sky for sport, rather than all this for what might be a few stoats in Orkney.”