With the cats gone, the worst of the introduced mammals were the rats. A programme of rat eradication was impossible on an island the size of Ascension, there are simply too many hidey holes and their reproduction rate is phenomenal. Rats, like anywhere where humans exist, were everywhere. The small Environmental Health division of Ascension Government was almost completely taken up with their control. They would do house to house eradication, they routinely tried to keep numbers under control by laying bait in key areas round the settlements. And they worked very closely with the Conservation Department to try to keep them at bay from key biological concerns. The bird colonies were prime target for intervention, but they also maintained a network of traps up on Green Mountain, as rats are omnivorous and enjoy a nibble on endemic vegetation as well as eating eggs.
I tried to get to understand the work these guys did and had many meetings with Greggy and his supervisor, Charles, who also happened to be the father of ‘Tasha, one of the long term sgtaff at Conservation. Both really nice guys who I shared several beers with over the years, they loved a laugh but could also be methodical about their work. One time I wanted to walk with them to find out their field craft, they were getting help from the Administrator’s son, Ash. Charles, Greggy, Ash and I piled into their Land Rover pickup and headed up the mountain.
Heading up the mountain is always a thrill, both the never ending series of zigzags as you reach up a very thin ridge to reach the upper elevations, and the way the vegetation changes as you rise. As usual it was a lot cooler at the car park at the Red Lion than down in Georgetown, but the cloud level was low. We were aiming to walk two paths. I would join Ash on Cronk’s Path, Greggy would do Rupert’s alone. Charles was going to drive down the mountain and round to the east to pick us up where the two paths joined.
Ash and I started across a manicured lawn which led past two bucolic cottages that were rented out by the Conservation Office (one of which Andrew and Phil had been renting). The process here was similar to the cat scat trails. You walked a few metres and would come across a dark green box. There was a small hole where a rat could get in (but hopefully no cat or dog or small child’s fingers). Inside would be some poisoned bait. The rat would eat it, and fairly quickly expire. On the sides of the box were firm spring clips that allowed you to access the inside, check the bait and replace it if necessary. Sealing the box, it would be replaced at the side of the path. Ash would then record what he found against the number painted on the box. If he saw some of the bait eaten he recorded P for partial, T if the total amount of bait had been removed and 0 if none had been disturbed. He also noted the number of dead rats in the vicinity, although that was rare as often or not the ill rat would have wandered off into the undergrowth before expiring. The numbers had been painted on by Greggy when the route was laid. Starting sequentially from the beginning of the trail at one, they had not only proved useful in recording the data, but you could keep track that you had seen all the boxes. Being green they were camouflaged by the undergrowth. They were set out at roughly 50m intervals so it was rare that you walked too far without seeing one. If you got to a number that was one or two above what you expected to see next it did not take too much time to head back and search for the missing ones.