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.
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.
Timber has been illegally sawn from protected gumwood trees at Peak Dale on St Helena.
A 2011 law makes it illegal to take, damage or kill endangered species, including the island’s unique gumwood trees. It will also be illegal under new environmental legislation currently being drafted.
The latest environmental management newsletter says: “The removal of this material results in a direct loss of habitat for all of the endemic invertebrate and lichen species that make the gumwood their home.
“There is also potential for damage to the endemic plants.”
Much of St Helena’s native vegetation has been lost through being cut down for firewood, with some species becoming extinct as a result.
St Helena National Trust describes the gumwood as “one of the iconic conservation causes” on the island.
Hundreds of trees planted in the Millennium Forest project have started to produce their own seedlings, but Peak Dale has the biggest remain fragment of gumwood forest.
However, trees have suffered from competition from invasive species and rat damage, say the trust.
A watersports area planned for Jamestown may not be such a good idea: as Adam Wolfe of St Helena National Trust pointed out, “the swimming area happens to be right next to a sewage pipe.”
He said the swimming area proposed in the Jamestown Vision document, intended to attract tourists, may only be good for the fish.
He made the comment in an interview that took place before his surprise resignation as the Trust’s director.
The outfall into the sea is currently the only way to get rid of sewage waste from St Helena, said Adam: “There is no sewage treatment on the island and all the raw material goes straight into the sea.”
This means that the new swimming area could potentially pose health risks for those who choose to swim there.
The Jamestown Vision aims to smarten up the island’s capital in preparation for tourists.
However, the sewage pipe adjacent to the planned swimming area could have the opposite effect, driving tourists away.
The proposed “water facility” for swimming and sunbathing is at the western end of Jamestown seafront, close to Donny’s bar. As part of the plans, new terraces and a slipway would be built, extending into the sea. As well as swimming, these would be used for water sports such as kayaking.
Although swimming amongst sewage is bad for human health, Adam pointed out that “the fish do like it.”
Island craftsmen are to restore a historic group of buildings in Lemon Valley – while learning traditional skills.
Master stonemason Henry Rumbold will pass on his techniques to building trades students at Prince Andrew School, and unemployed young people.
Established builders will also be able to increase their skills on the project, run by the St Helena National Trust (SHNT).
It continues a Trust skills programme that led to student Clint Fowler winning a Prince of Wales apprenticeship, which gave him seven months’ further training in the UK.
The new work is being given funding by Enterprise St Helena, and involves the school, St Helena Tourism, and the adult education service, Aves. It is being supported by CITB Construction Skills in the UK.
The training is internationally accredited.
Mr Rumbold, who has been awarded an MBE, will teach a range of traditional building skills while his students restore a cottage complex built in traditional St Helena style.
The programme is intended create a pool of skilled labour to maintain and improve the island’s unique and rare historic buildings, including its many coastal fortifications.
These are seen a vital to creating a tourist industry on the island.
Rob Midwinter of Enterprise Saint Helena said: “To make these projects work we need to work as a team.
“The opportunities are fantastic and our combined efforts will make Lemon Valley a great place to visit.”
Security is being reviewed at St Helena’s Millennium Forest after thefts of critically-endangered endemic plants worth hundreds of pounds.
Many were to have been planted as part of the Darwin project to re-establish extremely rare native flora on the island.
Adam Wolfe, director of the St Helena National Trust, said thefts since May 2012 had left him “frustrated and disappointed, with a bit of sadness.”
In the latest episode, in late October, 29 rosemaries and 12 gumwoods were stolen. In all, the losses amount to 22 gumwood trees and 58 rosemary plants. Police are investigating.
The St Helena Rosemary, which has come close to extinction, is very difficult to raise from seed. Both species are protected under island law.
The latest theft, from an open shelter at the Millennium Forest nursery, was discovered by Meeko Paajenan, the National Trust’s horticulturalist.
Adam said: “Staff were already aware of previous thefts. The plants are set out in frames and those that were stolen were conspicuous by their absence. Meeko arrived at work two weeks ago and found that additional plants had been stolen.
“The plants were in an open hard stand area being ‘hardened up’ before being despatched for planting. The rosemary was destined for the Blue Point ecological area, the gumwoods for the Millennium Forest.”
The cost to the National Trust has been put at 10 for each gumwood tree, and £15 for each of the rosemaries, which are harder to grow. That makes a total loss of £1,090.
They are unlikely to hold any cash value to a thief: any attempt to sell them would be likely to result in the criminal being found out.
Adam said stocks were limited, and vulnerable.
“The biggest issue is the theft of the rosemaries destined for Blue Point, which is being managed as part of the Darwin Project to protect and restore the island’s endemic flora.”
St Helena is home to some of the world’s rarest plants. The national trust was awarded nearly £300,000 through the UK’s Darwin Initiative to conserve the island’s threatened biodiversity.
The island’s rosemary is a shrub, though it formerly grew as a tree and was widespread in the west of the island, particularly around Rosemary Plain.
It is classed as critically endangered on the “red list” of the world’s threatened species.
The total population size in the wild dropped to about 100 plantsat High Hill, Lot and above the Asses Ears, but it has been successfully raised in “captivity”, including in the Castle Gardens in Jamestown.
The gumwood was adopted as St Helena’s national tree in 1977.
Its seeds germinate easily but by the 1980s it was reduced to extremely low numbers because of grazing by goats and centuries of use as firewood.
In 1991, the largest surviving population, at Peak Dale, was attacked by a sucking insect that took sap from the trees and encouraged a black mould that killed them. Ladybirds from Kenya were successfully introduced to clear the bug.
More than 4,000 gumwoods have successfully been planted at the award-winning Millennium Forest on reclaimed wasteland near Longwood, but it is still classed as endangered.
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.”