An appeal for money to save threatened species in UK overseas territories – including St Helena’s spiky yellow woodlouse – has raised three quarters of its £240,000 target.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds urges would-be donors to support “a team effort” with conservationists, governments and local people.
When the appeal was launched, the organisation’s website said the St Helena Olive tree was the most recent species to be lost.
Since then, the island’s giant earwig has also been declared extinct.
The appeal page says:
St Helena’s precious cloud forest is home to the black cabbage tree, which grows in only one place – and only 250 square metres are left. This habitat is the only place where the spiky yellow woodlouse is found. There are fewer than 50 woodlice left, living on just 20 ferns. We’re creating an artificial forest canopy to keep the ferns the way the woodlice like them.
The Tristan albatross is only found in this territory, with all except two pairs nesting on Gough Island. It’s on the brink of extinction, and sadly introduced house mice eat albatross chicks alive and in total kill over half a million seabird chicks here every year. We’re working on ways of getting rid of the mice.
We’re also taking steps to save the severely endangered Wilkins’ bunting, which only lives on one tiny island in the entire world, Nightingale. There are only 80 pairs in existence, so we’re helping them by planting more of their favourite trees.
The RSPB says a £15 donation can fund a square metre of shade canopy in the St Helena cloud forest.
The website also has a 17-minute film, Invaders of the UK Overseas Territories, about the diversity of Britain’s far-off islands and the threat posed by alien species. St Helenian conservationist Stedson Stroud is shown, telling how seabirds have returned to Ascension after the eradication of feral cats.
Charles Darwin glossed over it, but now St Helena has been officially recognised as Britain’s wealthiest spot on Earth when it comes to natural treasures.
The island is home to a third of the endemic species that are found on British territory around the world – that is, plants and creatures that appear naturally in only one place.
A “stock-take” by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds puts it far ahead of second-placed Bermuda. But it also highlights severe ignorance in London about the ecology of Britain’s far-flung territories, and a lack of strategy for protecting it.
St Helena even beats the iconic Galapagos Islands – seven times over – when it comes to unique invertebrates (judged on land mass).
Sadly, spiders and insects don’t attract eco tourists in quite the same way as the natural wonders of the Galapagos, but perhaps that’s just as well, given the massive strain that tourism has brought to those islands.
Their human population has grown five-fold since the 1970s, when it had the same number of people as St Helena has today. And with three airports and a stream of cruise ships visiting, they’re under daily threat of alien species being brought in and causing havoc to a fragile eco-system.
Bio-security is already being strengthened on St Helena in readiness for the opening of its first airport in 2016.
A press release from The Castle in Jamestown describes the island as “a mid-Atlantic life-raft of rare and irreplaceable species”.
Concerns about protecting agriculture and public health are cited as further reasons to control what comes in to the island.
The RSPB’s findings have been welcomed by Linda Houston of Shelco, the group planning to build an eco resort at Broad Bottom on St Helena.
She said: “This is great news and underpins the importance of a low volume, high value tourism strategy for St Helena.
“As illustrated by our approach to invasive species clearance and the establishment of [our] wirebird sanctuary, St Helena’s biodiversity is a central component of our scheme.
“In our work at Broad Bottom we aim to encourage innovation and knowledge transfer amongst local and international renowned centres of excellence, which can be applied across the island.”
The RSPB’s stock-take of Britain’s overseas territories is the first one ever to be undertaken.
It was commissioned after a cross-party body of Members of Parliament in London attacked the British government for failing in its duty to protect the environment in its overseas territories.
The Environmental Audit Committee said the government did not even know what it was supposed to be looking after.
The survey brought together all known records from the past 300 years.
Many of the species recorded in those archives are now lost, including the St Helena olive that was rescued from apparent extinction by George Benjamin BEM, who first woke St Helenians up to the importance of their endemic plants.
He also began the planting of gumwood trees on the east of the island that evolved into the Millennium Forest.
A battle is currently being fought to save the false gumwood tree, which has died out in one of its two last remaining outposts. Just seven adult trees survive in a single location, and efforts are being made to harvest and propagate its seeds.
The same delicate technique recently saved the bastard gumwood when it became the world’s rarest tree, with only one specimen surviving.
Jeremy Harris, director of the St Helena National Trust, said: “Over 14 million years, St Helena has developed a totally unique biosphere of incredible diversity protected by thousands of miles of ocean.
“Five hundred years ago, it was discovered by people who brought goats and rats and other species that had a huge impact on its fragile environment.
“What remains today is still clearly remarkable and unique and of international significance. St Helena, now more than ever, needs our protection and care as the airport approaches, bringing with it new risks and challenges.”
Senior Veterinary Officer Joe Hollins said the opening of the airport would remove the “quarantine effect” of a five-day sea voyage to reach St Helena.
“Biosecurity on St Helena is necessarily being tightened,” he said.
“We already have laws in place for live animals and related genetic materials, and for fruit, vegetables, plants and related products; and the Bees Ordinance protects our disease-free bees and honey.
“But remaining loopholes to be closed include certain meat, dairy and fish imports.”
RSPB report highlights woeful ignorance and lack of plans
Glaring gaps in knowledge about Britain’s overseas territories and their wildlife are highlight in the RSPB’s report on its findings.
“Whole groups of species remain almost entirely undiscovered,” says the report, which was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
“Whilst some excellent conservation work is underway on the ground… the UK Government still has no strategic overview of where the most urgent priorities lie, or even a simple understanding of actions undertaken, such as the number of nature reserves established.”
The UK’s environment department, Defra, has “no dedicated evidence plan for the OTs”, and its advisory body on nature conservation has no strategy for dealing with “biodiversity knowledge gaps”.
It says: “The OTs hold at least 1,500 endemic species, compared to around 90 endemic species in the UK. This is equivalent to 94 per cent of known endemic British species.
“Much of the endemic OT fauna and flora is threatened, although only 145 species (9 per cent) have ever had their global conservation status assessed. Of these, 111 (77 per cent) are listed as Globally Threatened.”
The RSPB adds that there could be 50,000 unrecorded species in the island territories – more than two thousand of them endemic.
An investigation has highlighted “legal neglect” of biodiversity in the UK’s overseas territories – but not on St Helena.
The territory, which formally includes Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, is one of only three to have been singled out for praise in a report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Gibraltar is the Overseas Territory that best demonstrates good practice across the board
The British Virgin Islands have notable good practice in its site protections
St Helena has notable good practice in its development control mechanisms
The RSPB also praised the island while giving evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee in London. It also acknowledged the careful stewardship of the marine environment and fisheries around Tristan da Cunha.
However, it also had criticism for the lack of government transparency in territories – a problem that has been highlighted in St Helena.
The Ascension Island Conservation organisation has been highly active in projects to monitor turtles and land crabs, and improve habitat for frigate birds by eradicating wild cats.
St Helena’s environment department has begun identifying marine life around the island, and is working on a new protection plan for The Peaks.
A paragraph in this story has been toned down in response to a comment made privately to St Helena Online. The paragraph, about information being made available to legislative councillors, was capable of mis-interpretation.
Secretive decision-making by governments in St Helena and other British overseas territories leaves them vulnerable to corruption, MPs in London have been warned.
The same lack of transparency had already brought down the government in the Turks and Caicos Islands, said Clare Stringer of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Her warning echoed strong concerns raised about the conduct of St Helena’s executive council, which meets almost entirely in secret and refuses public access to agendas, reports and minutes.
Clare Stringer delivered her warning in evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on Wednesday, 17 April 2013. She referred to a recent RSPB review that found widespread lack of openness.
Speaking as head of the RSPB’s overseas territories unit, she said islands were vulnerable to unhealthy outside influence if they did not have “robust legislation and transparency systems.”
She went on: “Our recent review of environmental governance showed that in a lot of the territories those aren’t in place.
“Very few if any have transparency legislation, freedom of information doesn’t exist, decisions are made by a Foreign Office appointed governor or by elected council members – but often behind closed doors – and it’s very difficult to know why decisions are made in the way that they are.
“And it does leave administrations open to corruption, and we have seen that in the Turks and Caicos Islands in recent years.
“The fact that these decisions aren’t made openly, it leaves an atmosphere where corruption can occur.”
An inquiry into the Turks and Caicos Islands corruption affair found that it resulted from circumstances very similar to those that are now emerging on St Helena, with the building of an airport attracting outside investors.
In fact, the RSPB’s review has singled St Helena out for praise for the strength of its developing environmental protections, which greatly restrict opportunities for developers to apply undue pressure to obtain Crown land.
But Clare Stringer’s criticisms of secretive government exactly describe the clandestine decision-making that takes place in the shady confines of the Castle in Jamestown.
Even a member of St Helena’s legislative council, Christina Scipio O’Dean, has reported being repeatedly refused information about government funding for the South Atlantic Media Service. Other legislative councillors have complained at public meetings that they were not told about structural reforms in the government, despite their scrutiny role.
The refusal to meet openly and make vital documents available for scrutiny means that it is impossible to know how much influence is being applied by unelected officials.
In the past, a St Helena Government official has justified the lack of openness on the basis that it was the same in most other territories.
The RSPB’s concerns were echoed by Dr Mike Pienkowski, who was giving evidence to the MPs as chief executive of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum.
He said: “We are dealing with small communities whose legislative bodies are more on the scale of parish councils, in some cases.
“So it’s really very difficult for them to negotiate or avoid legal but excessive influence by international companies.
“And there are problems with openness and accountability in their systems.”
Dr Colin Copus, Professor of Local Politics at Leicester Business School, said in January that the limited information released about St Helena’s ExCo meetings “may fulfill some element of accountability, but it doesn’t go far.”
He said: “You can only be representative if people know what you are doing. It is just simple and healthy for people to know. It leads to a more informed and engaged citizenry and that is a good thing.”
Disputes have broken out among bird experts over plans to build “the world’s greenest hotel” on St Helena, including an eco-golf course.
A formal objection to the resort has been lodged by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) – even though the scheme seeks to end the failure of wirebird breeding at the Broad Bottom site.
No chicks were successfully raised there in the last breeding season, despite it being the third-largest nesting area on the island. Rats and poor habitat are blamed.
St Helena National Trust (SHNT) has also objected to the planning application for the Wirebird Hills resort at Broad Bottom, which includes an 88-suite hotel and 165 lodges built to high eco standards.
The RSPB said it was not convinced Shelco’s plans to create new habitat would work.
But Shelco consultant Dr Keith Duff said it was “worrying” that the objectors made no mention of the recent failure of any chicks to survive.
His report says Broad Bottom has not been managed in a way that protects the birds:
Grazing only by cattle means grass is too long for birds to nest in
Only 20 per cent of grazed land is suitable for nesting at any time
There are too many rats, which take eggs and kill chicks
Scrub that harbours rats has been allowed to spread
Both Dr Burns and Dr Fiona Burns of the RSPB said they did not blame the decline on St Helena Government, which is responsible for rodent control, or Solomons, which grazes cattle on the land.
The Shelco scheme involves fencing off a sanctuary on the existing Wirebird Ground area, and creating areas of “rough” alongside the golf fairways that it says would be suitable for nesting.
The RSPB said it did not believe the St Helena Plover, as the bird is also known, would nest close to playing areas.
Dr Fiona Burns, who works for the charity, said: “It’s really positive that a company is coming in and trying to make an environmentally-friendly development because we could be getting just anybody.
“It’s a good way to have tourism, but as it stands we don’t think it’s quite good enough, but we are keen to work with them to make it better.”
It has welcomed plans to clear flax, gorse and other scrub that has spread at Sebastop0l and Ding Dong Gut – potentially harbouring rats.
But Dr Burns – who gained her doctorate last year for her research on the island – said the RSPB was not convinced the land-clearance would create much extra habitat.
She said: “For a lot of the area where they were proposing to remove scrub, there is also a proposal to have woodland lodges, so the area remaining for wirebirds would be small.
“It could help wirebirds but it will not balance out the area that will be impacted by the golf fairways.
“And because it’s a phased development, it’s not certain they would build these lodges. It’s not guaranteed what area would be available for wirebirds.”
Shelco’s 82-page planning paper describes how a naturalistic golf course would improve breeding habitat for wirebirds.
It says avoiding heavy use of chemicals on the land would ensure a good supply of invertebrates for wirebirds to feed on.
The site would include fenced-off areas that would be grazed by sheep, to keep the grass short enough for nesting. It is thought wirebirds choose to nest where they can keep watch for predators, but grazing by cattle alone leaves grass too long.
But Dr Burns said evidence from Longwood golf course cast doubt on the idea that wirebirds would nest close to fairways.
“Although it is used for foraging, especially at night, it is not used as a breeding area,” she said.
“The thing we could do is to try to change a bit of the design to have a more substantial area of less disturbed ground. Or maybe we’d have to look at improving an area elsewhere to mitigate for the impact on the site itself.”
Shelco’s adviser, however, said the Broad Bottom course would be much larger, which much bigger areas of rough – “rougher and higher” – so there would be far more undisturbed ground.
And there was concern from the RSPB and the St Helena National Trust about whether all Shelco’s promises would be delivered.
“The final thing about [Shelco’s] environmental statement is that it hasn’t got a lot of guarantees about what will happen – we are keen to know what they will do for predator control, how long they will do it for, how wide an area.
“One of the things we would be looking for is some sort of monitoring – or if the plan didn’t work, what would be the repercussions?”
But Dr Duff told St Helena Online: “All of these areas of detail will be covered in the environmental management plan, which will be the subject of a planning condition if consent for the development is granted.”
Shelco’s planning consent would be invalid if it did not meet all the conditions imposed by the planning board – even once the resort was built.
“The plan would not be signed off by the planners until they were satisfied with it, and would be monitored to ensure it is being implemented.”
The “detailed” management plan would cover “predator control, scrub removal and a grazing regime aimed at significantly increasing the area of grassland in suitable condition for wirebird breeding.
“These actions would be funded by Shelco, so represent a major commitment of private sector resources to go into conservation work on the site.
“We have already made clear that we want to work with St Helena National Trust officers in developing the environmental management plan.”
Shelco’s proposals have been based on advice from the Trust.
Dr Duff – who worked with the RSPB to write a book on birds and golf courses – said he did not accept that wirebirds would not nest on parts of the Broad Bottom course.
“I would be surprised if wirebirds did not use the rough for nesting, as these areas will be open-range sheep-grazed, which will produce a shorter sward than exists on much of the site at any one time at present.
“The overall area which would be suitable for wirebird breeding under the grazing scheme proposed by Shelco is three times larger than the area currently in suitable condition at any one time.
“Shelco have chosen to rename their development ‘Wirebird Hills’, which seems to me to reflect their determination to make sure that the site remains an important wirebird site into the future.
“They would hardly want to use a name which could come back to haunt them.”
When the experts from Shelco went to look round the site of their proposed eco-resort on St Helena, they were greeted by one of the locals.
It was evidence – not really needed – that it’s not only people that find Broad Bottom one of the most attractive spots on St Helena. Rattus Norvegicus and Rattus Rattus have found it increasingly congenial too.
And wirebird eggs and chicks are favoured delicacies in the rodent diet. Not one wirebird chick survived the last breeding season at Broad Bottom – one of the prime nesting sites for St Helena’s unique but critically endangered bird species.
Shelco’s plans for a hotel, lodges and “eco golf course” seek to reverse the landscape changes that have led rats to increase, and wirebird numbers to fall.
The developer’s environmental consultant, Dr Keith Duff, says rats thrive because of a lack of controls, and the spread of scrub and flax, which harbour predators:
“There is some periodic control of rats at Broad Bottom Farm by St Helena Government pest control operatives, using poison baits, but this is only done in response to requests from Solomons on public health grounds.
“Government action to control rats does not extend to doing this to protect wirebirds.
“Stands of flax, and scrub, provide nesting areas for rats, so a successful predator control programme needs to be done in parallel with a scrub clearance and management programme.”
The other big problem for the ground-nesting wirebirds, he says, is loss of suitable habitat.
Wirebirds like to nest on ground that’s not too steep, where the grass is short – apparently so they can keep an eye out for predators. Shelco has suggested digging “shelves” into the hillside at Broad Bottom to make the land more conducive to nesting.
In the past, there were plenty of sheep and cattle to graze the pastures, but not any more. Solomon and Company keeps a small herd of cattle at Broad Bottom, but no sheep.
Cattle only trim the grass to 75 millimetres, which Dr Duff says is not enough for the wirebirds to keep their lookout. So Shelco proposes grazing by sheep as well, to bring the grass down to a favourable height.
It should be said that Dr Fiona Burns of the RSPB, who has researched wirebirds on the island, does not share his view about the need for grazing by sheep.
The Shelco adviser goes on to say that because cattle are moved around the site, “only a small part of the Broad Bottom wirebird census area is ever in ideal condition for wirebirds at any one time.” He says:
“Large areas of the Sebastopol grazing unit have been over-run by extensive and thick stands of scrub, primarily gorse, white weed and pine. The same is true, to a lesser extent, of parts of Ding Dong Gut.
“This seems to haveresulted from reduced grazing levels in recent years, and has led to loss of both pasture and wirebird habitat. If remedial action is not taken soon it is likely that these areas will be permanently lost to wirebirds, and to grazing.
“Scrub also shows signs of expanding within many of the other grazing compartments.
“The only way to overcome this major problem is through a major scrub clearance exercise.”
Dr Duff told St Helena Online: “The key point which we are trying to address at Broad Bottom is to reverse the bad situation which has developed.
“I am not implying, or seeking to imply, any criticism of anyone in my report. The reality is that the current situation at Broad Bottom is not good for wirebirds.”
Dr Burns takes a sympathetic view of the circumstances behind the habitat loss.
“Across the whole island, grazing animals has not been profitable, so farms have declined in recent years and in several areas that has led to habitat becoming less suitable, not just at this location. Land has become overgrown, but that is part of a whole-island issue.
“There is no obligation at present for a landowner to maintain land in a way that is beneficial to wirebirds. In the future, new protection might have some implications.”
St Helena Government is establishing Important Wirebird Areas, including Broad Bottom. Legal protection could come into effect by 2013.
The RSPB is also doing more research on cats and rats, and the way their populations impact on each other (if you reduce the number of cats because they attack wirebirds, will rats become more of a problem?).
“Hopefully that will be able to inform more sensible management,” says Fiona Burns. “At the moment the government of St Helena mostly targets rodent control around places where people live, but we would hope in the future they might be able to take on some level of control for the sake of wirebirds.”
On most parts of St Helena, cats are the main threat to wirebirds. Dr Fiona Burns set up cameras to monitor attacks on nests. Sixty five per cent of raids caught on film were by cats. Bizarrely, a sheep was also filmed taking an egg, and one chick on the point of hatching was killed by ants.
Photographer Andrew Evans arrived on the world’s most remote inhabited island just days after the bulk carrier MS Oliva was shipwrecked, creating an environmental disaster.
The ship releasing an oil slick that was to kill hundreds of endangered rockhopper penguins – and for a few days, it went unreported in the world’s media.
Evans had travelled to Tristan da Cunha in his role as National Geographic’s ‘digital nomad’, intending to capture the islanders’ way of life. Instead, he found himself witnesses the islanders’ response to a calamity.
Now National Geographic has released a video of him talking about how he broke the story of the MS Oliva.
“It was devasting,” he says. “Nobody in the world knew about this. This was an island that was completely disconnected. It’s off the grid.
“The first thing I did was take as many pictures as I could. I created a YouTube video and published it immediately from the ship. I put it out on Twitter [an internet messaging website] and it got picked up by the blogosphere.
“National Geographic got it out there in the real press, and it went to the New York Times.”
The lesson, says Evans, is that anyone with a camera and a web connection has the power to share news with the world.
In fact, Tristan is not as disconnected as he suggests. The story was also being relayed beyond the island on Tristan’s own website, which is published from the UK.
And unlike Evans, a Belgian witness had video footage of the crew actually being rescued by personnel from a passing cruise ship. However, Kanaal van KristineHannon’s shots did not appear on YouTube for another 11 days.
And efforts were being made to get the story in the UK media – but the oil spill happened in the same week as the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. The BBC was told about the story several times, but took days to get round to covering it.
The Today programme ran a live interview on the crisis on 22 March 2011 – the day Evans arrived on Tristan (and released a video in which he made no mention of the disaster).
Efforts by the people of Tristan da Cunha to rescue birds in last year’s oil spill disaster appear to have been a great success, against enormous odds.
A count appears to show little impact on breeding among the island’s endangered rockhopper penguin colonies after the MS Oliva broke up on rocks.
But oil and cargo released into the South Atlantic from the ship have severely damaged the lobster fishery that provides islanders’ main source of income.
Tristanians had to rescue crew members of the MS Oliva when it hit rocks off neighbouring Nightinghale Island on March 16.
They then set up their own clean-up operation for wildlife while they waited more than a week for help to arrive from Cape Town, 1,700 miles away by sea.
The ship broke up in rough weather, discharging 1,500 tonnes of bunker fuel into the sea. The resulting slick reached Tristan and Inaccessible Island, a World Heritage Site.
Now a report by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds says the breeding population of rockhopper penguins in the area has not suffered as much as anticipated.
But Dr Juliet Vickery, head of international research, says the figures should be treated with caution.
Well over half of the world’s population of Northern Rockhopper penguins breed on the Tristan group of islands.
Approximately 154,000 of them bred on the islands in 2011, but estimates in the 1950s suggest there were ‘millions’ of birds, with two million pairs on Gough alone.
‘It’s a big relief that the initial results of the counts are better than we had anticipated,’ says Dr Vickery. ‘We should not, however, relax our watch. There is much we don’t know about this species.’
She says it is not known how well population trends can be worked out from counts in breeding colonies. There may be longer-term ‘sub-lethal’ effects on breeding.
‘It is vital that we continue to monitor the birds closely for several more years to establish the true impact of the oil spill.’
The oil spill has also caused concern for the important Rock Lobster fishery around Tristan – the mainstay of the island’s economy. The latest evidence shows that catches are way below normal and rotting soya has been spotted on the traps.
Divers found the wreck had broken up considerably over the Southern Hemisphere winter. The Nightingale fishery has closed on expert advice and the quota for the fishery at Inaccessible Island was reduced from 92 to 53 tonnes for 2011/12 season.
An RSPB emergency appeal raised almost £70,000, which will be used to support penguin monitoring, strengthen the islands’ biosecurity, and help Tristan control rats – which could spread to Nightinghale and kill chicks.
Katrine Herian. who works for the RSPB on Tristan, praised islanders for their work: ‘Something really needs to be said about the huge Tristanian efforts in response to this disaster.
‘Without them, this could have been a very different story. While the true impact of the spill won’t be known for some time yet, we can at least know that everything that could be done was done.’