A team of conservationists stranded on one of the most remote places on earth have made it back to the UK on a military flight.

The group of 12 from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, based in Bedfordshire, had travelled to Gough Island in the South Atlantic Ocean in February.

They were working on a restoration programme that aimed to save endangered seabirds from giant invasive mice.

The mice eat chicks alive and kill more than two million birds on the island every year.

The RSPB had to shut the project down due to the coronavirus pandemic and had to find a way to return the group to the UK.The island is part of the British Overseas Territory, Tristan da Cunha and is about 1700 miles west of Cape Town in South Africa.

Members of the Foreign Office from Tristan da Cunha, Ascension Island, the Falkland Islands, South Africa, Austria and London, worked closely with the Royal Air Force to find them a route home - a 12-day sail to the isolated island, before boarding a RAF A400 transport aircraft several days later.

South Africa was the most obvious destination for the team but rapidly developing travel restrictions in the country meant this option had to be ruled out and other nearby nations also closed their borders.

The Falkland Islands were identified as the next-best option, but it was at least a 20-day sail away on the group’s expedition yacht, the E.S.V Evohe, against prevailing and deteriorating weather conditions.

Kate Lawrence, who was among the RSPB group said:

“We knew the team back in the UK were working on a plan, and they communicated to us regularly, though the information and plan seemed to change almost on a daily basis due to the ever-changing border closures and travel restrictions around the world. Travelling via Cape Town, the Falkland Islands, St Helena and Ascension Island were all possibilities at some point.” “Sailing in that boat for 12 days, looking at the endless blue ocean around me, made the world feel quite big, in contrast to the previous ease of air travel and the rapid spread of Covid-19, which makes the world seem so small.”

Kate Lawrence, RSPB

On arrival at Ascension, the Head of Administrator’s Office Xander Halliwell and RAF Base Commander Wing Commander John Kane quickly worked to get the group on the next RAF flight, due to arrive on the island five days later to deliver essential supplies, before returning to RAF Brize Norton. Ascension Island is home to just 800 people.

Tristan da Cunha Administrator Fiona Kilpatrick said:

“It was a complex operation involving staff from three UK Overseas Territories, as well as our teams in South Africa, Vienna and London, to ensure this team, doing such important work in such an isolated location, could make it back to the UK safely. “Their challenging journey showed how carefully this needed to be planned and how much coordination and diplomacy was required to get them home. We hope to welcome them back soon.”

Fiona Kilpatrick, Tristan da Cunha Administrator

Programme Executive of the RSPB Gough Project Andrew Callender said:

“We received incredible support throughout the repatriation process from members of the FCO - the High Commissioner in South Africa and various Administrators and Representatives of the Overseas Territories, especially in the Falklands and the ultimate place of repatriation, Ascension.”

Andrew Callender, RSPB Gough Project

The charity intends to return to the island in 2021, if conditions allow, and the necessary finance can be raised.