St Helena Online

Tag: conservation

Sea power brings hope of turtles hatching on St Helena

Turtle tracks were spotted in Sandy Bay by Larry Thomas
Turtle tracks were spotted in Sandy Bay by Larry Thomas – who took this picture

The waves that pound against Sandy Bay Beach may have made it possible for green turtle eggs to hatch naturally on St Helena for the first time in decades.

A nest has been discovered where the sea has washed away old fortifications that were causing erosion of the beach. The find was made by Larry “Nails” Thomas.

Nests were also found in 2006 and 2011, but only a single hatchling was raised – in an artificial nest.

A 2015 turtle's nest, Sandy Bay. Picture by Larry Thomas
A 2015 turtle’s nest, Sandy Bay. Picture by Larry Thomas

Marine conservationist Elizabeth Clingham said her team at the island’s environment department were “super excited” by the discovery of the new nest.

“The beach seems far better suited to nesting,” she said. “And the turtles have nested early enough in the year that the temperatures on the island will support successful nesting.”

She said the same turtles might have been responsible for the earlier nesting attempts.

“I think that that this is possibly a turtle or turtles that hatched here 30-plus years ago, as they do nest every two to five years,” she said.

“Larry Thomas (Nails) made the initial discovery and contacted the marine section.  We responded and confirmed nesting status.”

turtle hatchling 2011They found clear tracks and disturbance in the sand showing where eggs had been buried.

Elizabeth said: “Residents of Sandy Bay talk of turtles nesting at on the beach in the Seventies near the lime kiln.

“The last recorded green turtle nesting attempts on St Helena were in April 2006 and April 2011.

“In 2006, as far we know, two turtles came ashore on Sandy Bay beach and laid eggs. One clutch of eggs was completely exposed; the other clutch were retrieved and placed into an artificial nest on the beach.”

“In 2011 there was significant evidence of turtle nesting activity on Sandy Bay beach again.”

Several “false” nests were found in 2011, the result of “desperate” attempts to find somewhere to lay eggs. One turtle was even photographed on the beach. But she was unable to reach a suitable nesting spot above sea level because of boulders used as a sea defence.

Sandy Bay in 1959 - with cannon on the beach. The wall in the foreground was washed away, allow the beach to regenerate
Sandy Bay in 1959 – with cannon on the beach. The wall in the foreground was washed away, allowing the beach to regenerate. Click the pic for a larger image

Two nests were destroyed by heavy seas but the eggs from a third were taken to an incubator inland, where they were carefully monitored under the guidance of expert Sam Weber, of Exeter University in the UK.

A single hatchling, named Joe, was the only survivor. On the evening of 26 September 2011 he was returned to the spot where his mother had laid her eggs months before.

Marine section staff stood by as little Joe – only six centimetres long – was encouraged to “walk” the few metres to the water, before the remnants of a wave dragged him into the sea.

The onlookers knew the hatchling’s chances of survival were slim.

But Elizabeth said conditions on the beach had now greatly improved – thanks to the forces of nature.

“An old fortification wall had caused the beach to erode away,” she said. “Over time the sea has demolished this wall, and the beach has regenerated quite significantly since 2008, after a major flood washed debris to the beach area.

“I am still concerned that the beach is still not ideal; however, it is better than it has ever been before in recent history.”

Read more from 2011: 
Turtles ‘desperate to nest’ – May 2011
Artificial nests made – including picture of green turtle on Sandy Bay Beach
Eggs destroyed by sea
Turtles hatch – first picture
St Helena’s first artificially incubated turtle released at Sandy Bay (St Helena Herald)

Net saving? Ascension no-fishing zone could cost £3m – or not

Creating one of the world’s biggest marine protection zones around Ascension Island could cost the UK about £3 million a year – at a Conservative estimate.

The conservationist estimate, on the other hand, is only £400,000 a year.

12 The Great WetropolisClick the pic to see a gallery of Ascension marine life

Celebrities and academics have joined with conservation groups in calling on the British government to create three massive maritime “parks” in the Atlantic and South Pacific, with a complete ban on commercial fishing.

The Tory Foreign Minister Hugo Swire has said the likely cost of full enforcement could be judged from the £2.75m spent each year patrolling a reserve in the Indian Ocean.

Policing the seas was even more expensive around South Georgia, “where a patrol vessel alone costs approximately £3.2m per year,” he said in a Commons Written Answer on 9 February 2015.

But the environment writer Charles Clover has put the cost at a mere £400,000 a year, according to The Guardian website.

Thanks to satellite technology, it would not be necessary to have a patrol boat out searching vast areas of ocean for pirate fishing vessels, he told the site.

The Guardian also reported that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had begun discussions with people on Ascension about creating a reserve.

It understood that “indigenous” fishing would be allowed up to 18 miles offshore. That may not reassure keen sport fishermen on Ascension, which officially has no permanent or “indigenous” population.

The Blue Marine Foundation has spear-headed a campaign to have three marine reserves created around Ascension, the Southern Atlantic territory of South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands, and the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific.

It says they would protect 1.75 million square kilometres of ocean – expanding the total area of ocean reserves by 50 per cent.

The foundation describes Ascension’s warm waters as “a green turtle Mecca and one of the last remaining hotspots for Atlantic megafauna such as tuna, marlin and shark.”

A campaign letter has been signed by 42 conservation bodies, including Birdlife International, the RSPB, Greenpeace UK, the Zoological Society of London, and the less-well-known Fin Fighters UK and Fish Fight.

The actresses Greta Scacchi, Dame Helena Bonham Cater, Julie Christie and Zoe Wanamaker have added their names to those of leading scientists and environmental figures in the letter to the UK government.

The foundation said in a statement: “More than 94 per cent of the UK’s biodiversity is found in its overseas territories.

“Rare whales, turtles, fish, penguins, corals and albatrosses are among the wildlife that would benefit if the reserves were to be set up.”

Ascension’s underwater wonders revealed
UK ‘doesn’t even know’ about eco threats, say MPs
St Helena tops the league table for unique species
Blue Marine Foundation – press release
Conservationists call for UK to create world’s largest marine reserve – The Guardian
Cost of patrolling Ascension reserve – Commons Written Answer

Cables versus cobbles: the battle of Main Street

Revealed, and then lost: 18th Century paving. Picture by Museum of St Helena
Revealed, and then lost: 18th Century paving. Picture by Museum of St Helena

With fibre-opting cables linking government buildings up and down Main Street in Jamestown, government staff will in future be spared from having to pop across the road to deliver documents.

And if there’s no need for people to walk anywhere, then perhaps one can see why pavements might not seem very important.

Cobbles exposed. Picture: Museum of St Helena
Cobbles exposed. Picture: Museum of St Helena

Not even pavements that were laid in when the East India Company built the fine array of Regency buildings that are so admired by visitors to St Helena’s capital.

The government and Enterprise St Helena might be pleased with this step into the digital age, but Nick Thorpe, defender of island heritage, is not.

The pavements – of carefully-laid cobbles edged with flagstones – have been hidden beneath concrete for years, but the important thing for Nick was that they were still there, intact. Their restoration remained a possibility.

The Museum of St Helena was asked to keep a watching brief on the ducting work, in the hope of discoveries – of a tunic button from the uniform of the St Helena Regiment, perhaps.

Nick mourns the loss in a letter to St Helena Online and the Independent:

“The accompanying pictures show expertly crafted and laid 18th Century paving stones in Main Street,” he writes. “These flagstones no longer exist: they have been destroyed in favour of communications ducting. It is a very sad thing when a government has too much money and no taste. The Castle courtyard is a good example of how things can be done well.”

Nick also despairs of a new pavement with “old-fashioned” bollards outside new Porteous House in Jamestown. He says it has “no historic or aesthetic value”.

(One other point raised by Nick is being clarified with St Helena Government). 

Writer praises reprieve for historic St Helena house

A fresh call has been made by a writer on St Helenian heritage to protect what remains of its grand country houses.

John Tyrrell also praises executive councillors for refusing to lift some of the protection from Wrangham’s in Sandy Bay, to allow it to be sold by St Helena Government.

“These fine Georgian country houses, reflecting the aspirations, life styles and aesthetic tastes of St Helena’s elite, are a vital part of the island’s heritage, and an unique part also of British colonial history,” he writes.

“Wrangham’s has in the past had some unsympathetic alterations, but it could be restored to something approaching its original state, and it is encouraging that the new crop of councillors are sensitive to such issues.

“I do hope that the means to save Wrangham’s will be found before it is too late.”

His article is illustrated with photographs from a return visit to the island in early 2013.

He highlights the “beautifully restored” Oakbank and also Farm Lodge, now a boutique hotel.

“But Rock Rose, and sadly now Teutonic Hall, look to be past the point of no return.”

And Rose Cottage, the home of the late Tony Thornton until he was ordered to leave the island, had become so swallowed up by plants that it was not visible until he reached its walls.

“This provides a graphic illustration of what can happen quite quickly to houses that are neglected on St Helena,” writes John, in his Reflections on a Journey to St Helena website.

Wrangham’s wrangle exposes conflicts over heritage
Nature reserve lease ‘could bring restoration’, says the Castle

Lost leaf hopper pops up for the first time in 137 years

St Helena's endemic leaf hopper, pictured on a whitewood leaf by Lourens Malan
St Helena’s endemic leaf hopper, pictured on a whitewood leaf by Lourens Malan

Bug experts have been astonished by the rediscovery of one of St Helena’s smallest creatures. Conservation officer Lourens Malan was lucky to spot the missing leaf hopper on his day off: it’s only three millimetres long. 

by St Helena Government writer

St Helena is a small island, but it is still possible to lose things. Just occasionally, however, they turn up again.

The 3mm-long leaf hopper Chlorita edithae was described from eight specimens collected by Vernon Wollaston during his visit to the island in 1875 and it hasn’t been seen since – until now.

On the 1 April 2013 bank holiday, while exploring tiny fragments of remaining natural vegetation above Wranghams on the high central ridge of the island, Lourens Malan noticed a few brightly-coloured leaf hoppers.

Quickly grabbing his camera, he managed to get several photographs of them. He later showed these to David Pryce, invertebrate conservation co-ordinator at the St Helena National Trust, who nearly fell off his chair – it hadn’t been seen for 137 years.

This major discovery is all the more important as the hopper was found on the endangered endemic Whitewood Tree, of which there were only 80 surviving in 1995.

Active conservation work on the Island has helped safeguard this species for the immediate future.

Most of the new stock has been grown from seedlings collected from the wild, and then grown on in more accessible areas where they could be tended and monitored.

As the plants collected were small it is less likely that they will provide habitat for the creatures associated with them.

Many of these insects are very poor at dispersing, which also restricts their ability to form new colonies.

Discoveries like this mean that steps can be taken to conserve these species as well as their plant hosts.

The isolated island of three Whitewood Trees where the hopper was found is in a sea of invasive New Zealand Flax.

This shows how rare invertebrates can persist for long periods in very low populations.

It is hoped that future work by the National Trust and the government’s environment staff will uncover more of these isolated pockets.

The UK’s Buglife charity is supporting the work, through a three-year project funded by the British government’s Darwin Initiative.

Their health will be assessed by looking at the diversity of their invertebrate populations. Conservationists hope more discoveries – and rediscoveries – will be made.

Tara Pelembe, Head of the environment division, said: “We are very excited about this find.

“Our rarest plants and animals exist in tiny pockets of native habitats. These unique habitats need to be safeguarded.

We are very pleased to be working in partnership with the National Trust and Buglife on a much-needed Darwin invertebrate project, which will help us to better understand the invertebrate species and habitats that exist on this unique island.”

Lourens Malan is a terrestrial conservation officer in the Environment Management Division of St Helena Government.

Island’s large bellflower ‘could be lost’ to genetic mix-up

St Helena’s endemic large bellflower could become extinct within a few years – even though it is raising new plants.

The fear for conservationists is that the few remaining wild plants are getting mixed up with another endemic species, the small bellflower – and soon their may be no true specimens left.

A conservation programme is on hold because it’s not even clear which plants can safely be used for raising seedlings.

On top of that, landslips threaten to sweep away the few surviving wild plants.

Phil Lambdon of St Helena National Trust said: “It is currently our most threatened flowering plant, with a few wild plants scattered between High Peak and the Depot only.

“Aside from being very rare, all of the sites are on unstable cliffs prone to landslips, and the species is hybridising extensively with the small bellflower, so we are in real danger of losing it completely through genetic contamination.

“This could leave a mix of plants with an ‘in between’ appearance, and no true individuals left.

“And it could happen within a few years.”

Fuschia and New Zealand flax are seen as the main causes for decline in the plant’s fragile habitat.

A genetic study is under way, funded by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, to try and work out which of the remaining small, shrubby plants are pure.

The charity put up £9,000 for the work in December 2012.

“Until we have done this we can’t really assess true numbers, or mount a proper conservation plan,” said Phil.

“The cultivation programme is partially on hold too, as it may not be safe to breed unless we know that the parents we pollinate from are guaranteed to be pure.”

The nursery at Scotland has conducted trial cultivations over a number of years.

Phil said: “There are about seven or eight individuals in cultivation at present, and there are 50 in the wild which might be pure – mostly very small and ailing, but still hanging on.”

The global “red list” of threatened species says they face “an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.”

St Helena once had four types of bellflower, but two are now lost. The large bellflower was common in the 19th Century, often growing out of the tree fern trunks in the cloud forest.

The website for the bin Zayed foundation says: “The reasons for the alarming decline in the large bellflower are unclear, but a sharp decline in the area of mature tree fern thicket and forest in the early 20th Century is likely to have been the major factor.”

The plant was listed as critically endangered in 2003, “and since then its status has deteriorated further.”

The project aims to prevent immediate extinction by weeding out invasive species and taller native plants, working out which plants are pure, working out how to prevent cross-pollination, and establishing a population of pure individuals in the conservation nursery. 

Leaf samples have been sent to Canada for analysis by Professor Quentin Cronk – one of the men who rescued the St Helena ebony plant in the 1980s.

If conservation efforts succeed, pure specimens could be reintroduced on high ground across the island.

LINK: Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund – large bellflower project

National Trust seeks new director to fight heritage threats

Trust logo 200A search is on for a new campaigner to lead the fight to protect St Helena’s threatened heritage.

St Helena National Trust is looking for a new director who can defend the island’s historic buildings as well as enhancing its natural assets – including critically endangered species.

The job advertisement says: “The remote island of St Helena is a treasure trove of world heritage, including hundreds of historic monuments and over 400 plants and animals which occur nowhere else on the planet.

“Yet today this extraordinary heritage is threatened by lack of information, neglect and lack of funding.”

A new director is needed after Adam Wolfe stepped down from the role at short notice.

The job involves leading up to 20 staff and volunteers on several fronts, as well as fund-raising, setting strategy, advising the island government, and working alongside the island’s environmental directorate.

The Trust has secured Darwin Project funding to help regenerate native species on the island, including at the Millennium Forest.

LINK: St Helena National Trust Strategic Vision

First gray whale spotted south of the equator

Namibia sighting suggests much-hunted whales are regaining ancient migratory routes, or may be down to climate disruption.

Keep your eyes open on deck while traveling to or from Walvis Bay. You might catch a rare glimpse of the mighty Gray Whale. You won’t catch this view from the Air!

Of course you won’t have the opportunity on the RMS St Helena since that service was cancelled in 2010.

Astonishing news from Walvis Bay, Namibia, where scientists from the Namibian Dolphin project on Tuesday confirmed the sighting of a gray whale. Not only has this north Pacific species been extinct in the Atlantic since the 18th century, it has never been seen south of the equator.

Rats caught attacking island chicks

Click the pic to see the video
Click the pic to see the video

A large number of rats have been found around the sooty tern colony on Ascension Island – with evidence of having fed on chicks.

Now one has been captured on video, probing round a nest at night while a tern refuses to move away.

The video has been published on the Ascension Island Conservation group’s Facebook page, which reports on a project by researcher Emily Dawson to study the black rat.

It says: “Emily Dawson, an MSc student from the University of Exeter, has found a high density of rats in the area surrounding the sooty tern colonies most with large quantities of sooty tern chick remains in their stomachs.”

See the video here (Facebook)

After the dry spell, paper warns of climate swings

Sharp changes in St Helena’s climate are having an increasing impact on food crops on the island.

The draft agriculture paper, Growing Forward, warns that swings in the weather could have several effects. They include:

  • lower soil fertility
  • more soil erosion
  • a rise in some pests and diseases
  • decline in wildlife habitat
  • poorer water quality

The threat comes from climate variability, meaning short-term changes in weather such as the recent severe dry spell, which led to a hosepipe ban.

The Growing Forward paper says its impact could be greater than climate change, which refers to changes that take place over decades and centuries.

It calls for research on climate swings and their impact, to allow farmers to adapt their systems for raising crops and livestock, as well as improving soil and conserving water.

But it also says they could allow farmers to try “new production and varieties”.

The paper also says farming on St Helena must have minimal negative impact on the local environment – including its human heritage.

It says that good pasture management has actually enhanced habitat for the island’s critically endangered wirebird, though a report for leisure developer Shelco found breeding ground had been lost through poor land control.

A firm policy to deal with invasive species is part of the environmental strategy put forward.

It also says people who lease Crown land must not let it be degraded and must keep invasive weeds at bay – with effective enforcement measures to make sure they do.

Biosecurity also needs to be stepped up to stop unwanted species and diseases coming to the island, backed up by new laws.

Other proposed measures including tighter controls on hazardous chemicals, maintaining field boundaries, improving the appearance of fields and farmyards, identifying wildlife habitats, protecting historic features in the landscape, and training people in eco-friendly farming practice – which could bring financial benefits to the island.