LIFE Raft Project


Detection dog joins seabird rescue mission on Rathlin Island

Thursday 9/05/24

Media Release from LIFE Raft

A new recruit has joined the groundbreaking LIFE Raft project on Rathlin Island – Woody, the two-year-old detection dog. And he’s on a mission to save seabirds.

LIFE Raft’s Michael Rafferty (left) and Ulf Keller (right), both trained to work with Woody, meet him for the first time

A Fox Red Labrador nicknamed ‘The Unit’, Woody is joining the team to help find any remaining ferrets on Rathlin Island, off the north coast of Northern Ireland. Both ferrets and rats are invasive non-native species on Rathlin, and they have been wreaking havoc on internationally-important seabird populations. Puffins, Guillemots, and other seabirds have seen their numbers decimated in recent years, with only one in three Puffin chicks (or ‘Pufflings’) surviving last year.

LIFE Raft, a project led by RSPB NI and the Rathlin Development Community Association (RDCA), and funded by EU LIFE, National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Garfield Weston Foundation, and DAERA, is determined to make Rathlin Island a seabird haven once more by removing ferrets and rats.

The team opened ferret traps in October 2023 and, with 98 ferrets caught to date, a world-first is in sight – the first ever feral ferret eradication.

That success, however, depends on leaving no stone unturned. Every potential sighting from the community has been followed up, and thermal drones and trail cameras have been deployed, but no technology can quite beat the evolutionary genius of a dog’s nose. Woody has been training for months for with Kryus Limited (who used Woody’s favourite toy, a ball on a rope, as his reward), and he’s now ready for his first job.

On Tuesday 7 May, Woody landed on Rathlin and today (8 May) he’s officially clocking in on his first day. Led by his trusty handler, Michael Rafferty, Fieldwork Manager, Woody will be given a tour of the island and introduced to the community before hitting the field to see if he can locate any ferrets.

A rainbow of labradors – Woody meeting Michael and Ulf’s dogs, Coby (black) and Nelson (golden), at his new home

After his summer spent ferret-finding, Woody will likely be retrained to tackle the next threat: brown rats. This second invasive non-native species found their way to the island in the 1800s, and they, like the ferrets, have found ground-nesting birds to be easy prey. In September the team will begin placing almost 7,000 bait stations across the island, kick-starting the final mammoth effort to make Rathlin free from these invasive non-native species.

Michael Rafferty, LIFE Raft Fieldwork Manager, said: “We have all been so excited to welcome Woody to LIFE Raft. It’s been no easy feat attempting a world-first eradication, and we knew we needed the best dog for the job to get us over the finish line. Woody’s ludicrous energy levels, uncanny sniffing skills, and goofy grin ticked all our boxes.”

The impact of the LIFE Raft project goes beyond wildlife alone. Michael Cecil, Chair of the RDCA, emphasises the project’s importance for both nature and community: “This project isn’t just about protecting wildlife. Thousands of people travel to Rathlin every year to experience the sights and sounds of the amazing seabirds, so protecting the wildlife means protecting a whole way of life, as well as securing the livelihoods of many of the people who live here. This project has the potential to protect the future of this historic island.”



Editor’s notes:

  1. The Rathlin Development and Community Association (RDCA) is the voluntary body that represents the Rathlin community. It promotes the Rathlin way of life and works for improvements to services and infrastructure and is run by an elected committee of volunteers that are heavily involved in various projects, ranging from training and skills development to renewable energy and a whole lot in between. The Rathlin Community Association was established in 1978 and after alterations to the constitution, its name changed in 1986 to the Rathlin Development and Community Association. The RDCA is a charity, recognised by the NI Charity Commission and HMRC.
  2. The RSPB is the UK’s largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.
  3. LIFE Raft is a partnership between RSPB NI; Rathlin Development and Community Association; Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council; National Parks and Wildlife Service; Causeway Coast and Glens Heritage Trust; and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. This project is funded by EU LIFE [LIFE20 NAT/UK/000349]; National Lottery Heritage Fund; Garfield Weston; and DAERA.
  4. In April, LIFE Raft joined the Island-Ocean Connection Challenge, lifea global initiative dedicated to beginning the holistic restoration of at least 40 globally significant island ecosystems from ridge-to-reef by 2030. The IOCC encourages practitioners, communities, funders and governments to work together to manage ecosystems holistically, rather than focusing on siloed efforts, to accelerate impact. Through collaboration, we strive to benefit biodiversity, marine health, climate resilience, and the well-being of island communities. To learn more about the IOCC and our mission, please visit