Sub Antarctic Skuas ( Stercorarius antarcticus ) inspect the new machines shortly after delivery

Gough Island – Kuboa U15 excavators fit the bill for restoration project

Smith Power Equipment has supplied two Kubota U15-3 excavators to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for use on the Gough Island Restoration Programme. The U15-3 was chosen for its compact build – both for transportation and working purposes – yet it punches above its weight with a strong performance.

The machines were bolted to galvanised steel I_beams with a lifting point in each corner to allow them to be hooked up to the helicopter
The machines were bolted to galvanised steel I_beams with a lifting point in each corner to allow them to be hooked up to the helicopter

For its Gough Island Restoration Programme – which will endeavour to eradicate the invasive house mice from Gough Island in 2020 – the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), a UK-based conversation organisation, specifically opted for two Kubota U15-3 excavators.

SA Agulhas 2
SA Agulhas 2

The machines were delivered to the Cape Town harbour (East Pier) on August 30 this year. They were then loaded onto the SA Agulhas II, the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries’ (DEFF) research vessel, which makes an annual voyage at Gough Island.

Mice eating chicks of the giant albatross chicks
Mice eating chicks of the giant albatross chicks

The project

Explaining the project, Nini van der Merwe, International Liaison and Communication Coordinator at BirdLife South Africa, says the RSPB and Tristan da Cunha Government have developed an ambitious programme of conservation action. In 2020, rodenticide bait will be spread across Gough Island, eradicating the mice and restoring Gough to a more natural state. This action will prevent the deaths of defenceless chicks year after year, halting decline and allowing populations to bounce back.

Gough Island
Gough Island

Gough Island is a remote, uninhabited island in the Tristan da Cunha archipelago, in the South Atlantic, more than 2 400 km from Cape Town. Being so far from disturbance makes Gough an idyllic nesting ground, and it is relied upon by millions of the world’s most unique seabirds who breed there. Its importance for threatened species and sites of outstanding natural value earned Gough World Heritage Site status in 1995 and Important Bird Area status in 2013.

Base on South Eastern Side of the Gough Island
Base on South Eastern Side of the Gough Island

Mice were accidentally introduced by sailors during the 19th Century. They have now evolved to become 50% larger than their ancestral relatives by exploiting all the food sources on the island. Video cameras reveal how the mice eat the flesh of seabird chicks.

Tristan Albatross chicks weigh up to 10 kg, but open wounds inflicted over successive nights frequently lead to their deaths. Mice are even starting to attack adult seabirds; the first evidence of this was recorded on Gough in 2018. There is a strong case for action on both welfare and conservation grounds.

Gough Island Base
Gough Island Base

The RSPB’s plan of action is relatively straightforward, though the operation is logistically complex, mainly because of the island’s remoteness, tough terrain and harsh weather conditions. Using helicopters, highly experienced pilots will spread cereal bait pellets containing a small amount of proven rodenticide across the island next year.

Why Kubota U15-3?

Van der Merwe explains that the machines will be deployed to clear and level the area on the island required for erecting the temporary infrastructure that will be required for the project in 2020. “This includes temporary accommodation (in the form of military grade tents) and temporary aviaries for housing some of the endemic bird species during the operation,” she says.

U15 transported in sections
U15 transported in sections

The Kubota U15-3 mini excavator was chosen for an array of reasons. Firstly, all cargo and equipment required onto the island can only be transported from the SA Agulhas II via helicopter. The helicopters have a maximum carrying capacity of 1,300 kg. “We needed a machine that was strong enough, but which we could also strip down to a fly-able weight. We removed the arm, the blade and the cab,” says Van der Merwe.

Re-attaching the second machine's arm with the aid of the first machine
Re-attaching the second machine’s arm with the aid of the first machine

Secondly, the area of the island where the machines will be working is made up mostly of peat and is very boggy, so there was concern that a too heavy machine might get stuck in the sink holes. “We also needed a machine that was strong enough to do the necessary clearing/leveling, while keeping its operating footprint as small as possible,” she says.

With an operating weight of just 1,5-tonne, the U15-3 was the ideal solution for the task at hand. Powered by the Kubota D782-E2-BH7 engine delivering 9,9 kW (13,3 hp) of power at 2,300 rpm, the machine also packs enough power to tackle the tough underfoot conditions.

Early impressions

While the machines have already arrived on the island, they will only start working between March and April 2020. “We have already transported the machines to the island, re-attached the arms and blades and tested them to ensure they were running well. We were very impressed by the performance, and are happy to report that they did not sink/ get stuck in the very muddy conditions,” says Van der Merwe.

Nini van der Merwe
Nini van der Merwe

Apart from the performance of the machines, Van der Merwe is equally impressed by the service from Smith Power Equipment, the sole distributor of the Kubota range of mini excavators in South Africa. “The service from the supplier was fantastic. Dominic Nessling (sales representative) and his team were never too busy for us. They also assisted with stripping down the machines for transport and delivering them to the vessel,” concludes Van der Merwe.

For more information please contact Smith Power Equipment on 011 284 2000.

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