A SEABIRD is breeding on a remote part of the Outer Hebrides for the first time after conservationists managed to wipe out a population of rats which had invaded the island.

Storm petrels, said to be a bad omen for mariners due to their link with bad weather, arrived this summer in the Shiant Isles, a privately-owned group of islands in the Minch, east of Harris.

The little black seabird’s presence is an important milestone for the Shiant Isles Recovery Project, which is working to attract storm petrels to nest on the islands, whose name means “enchanted” in Gaelic

The birds’ characteristic “churring” call was heard from burrows, their

breeding habitat, amid hopes the birds are also breeding.

It comes after an eradication programme targeted invasive non-native black rats which had spread across the islands.

The rats, thought to have reached the islands from a shipwreck, had limited the breeding success of colonies of puffins, razorbills and guillemots, while storm petrels and Manx shearwaters were not present at all.

It will be March 2018 before the islands can be officially declared free of rats, provided none are found between then and now.

But Dr Charlie Main, Senior Project Manager for the Shiant Isles Recovery Project, said there were "positive signs".

“The churring of a storm petrel is very distinctive and we’re delighted that it’s been recorded on the Shiants this summer," he said.

“While we are still some way off the islands being officially declared rat-free, these calls indicate that all the biosecurity work we’re doing to keep these islands predator free and make them ideal breeding sites for seabirds is paying off.

“It’s even more exciting to think that the birds may have bred on the

islands this year, although the risk of disturbing nesting birds meant we were unable to confirm this."

Storm petrels are little bigger than sparrows and only come to shore in

summer to breed.

Superstitious seafarers thought the birds were witches or the souls of

perished sailors, and killing one was reputed to bring bad luck.

Scotland’s internationally important population currently only nests at a limited number of potentially available sites on offshore islands because of their vulnerability to predation.

They are known to abandon and avoid nesting sites where rats or other

ground based predators are found.

While they have been recorded flying past the Shiants for many years, prior to the recovery project there was no evidence they were landing on the islands or attempting to nest.

The EU LIFE+ funded partnership project, which began in 2014, is run by RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), and the Nicolson family, the islands’ custodians.

Mr Main said: “The long term aim is to allow a breeding colony of storm petrels to establish at the Shiants.”

Dr Andrew Douse, SNH’s policy and advice manager, ornithology, added: “Storm petrels only occur on islands without rats, which means that they are very vulnerable to the effects that arise from invasive species such as these.

“The Shiants are an ideal breeding location for storm petrels and hopefully they will go on to become an important stronghold for this species.”