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.”