St Helena Online

Tag: St Helena Plover

Wirebird remains on global danger list, thanks to airport

St Helena’s unique wirebird features on the latest “red list” of the world’s critically endangered species, thanks to threats from the airport and new tourist developments.

Its recovering population should have been enough for its threat status to be relaxed, but it was argued that it should remain on the danger list to give time for experts to see how it copes with the arrival of the airport.

Four other unique island species remain on the red list – but two are thought to be extinct.

The listing for the wirebird – also known as the St Helena Plover – says:

“This species is classified as critically endangered because until very recently its population was extremely small and declining owing to land-use change (particularly a decrease in grazing pressure) and predation by invasive predators.

“The population has recently shown some signs of recovery, however, and if it continues to remain above 250 mature individuals and/or continues to increase or stay stable for a five-year period, it is likely to be eligible for downlisting.

“Given uncertainty over the impacts of the impending construction of an airport (which may well be significant), and given that these impacts will become clearer during 2012-2013, the status of this species should continue to be monitored closely.”

The two species thought to be extinct are the insect St Helena darter and the St Helena earwig, says the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which compiles the red list.

The darter has not been seen since 1963, but a lack of surveys means its survival is not ruled out.

The St Helena earwig – the largest in the world – is widely believed to have been wiped out by predators, including mice and an introduced centipede.

Some people believe the earwig has survived on Properous Bay Plain but might now be destroyed by the island’s new airport. No specimens have been seen alive since 1967, despite expeditions to find them.

St Helena Rosemary – which gave its name to Rosemary Plain – is now reduced to about 100 plants in three small clusters, on cliffs at High Hill and Lot, and between Distant Cottage and the Asses Ears

About 20 plants are also growing at Scotland and in the Castle Gardens.

A recovery plan includes establishing new colonies at Plantation, Peak Dale and the Millennium Forest, and encouraging “guardians” for other plantations.

Stocks are also being kept in the UK at Kew Gardens and the Eden Project.

The St Helena Ebony is listed as critically endangered even though it is widespread in gardens across the island – and around the world.

It was thought to be extinct until two surviving plants were spotted at a distance by George Benjamin, who died earlier this year. His brother was lowered down a cliff to reach one of the plants.

Because all the specimens around the world have been bred from those two individuals, “in-breeding” weaknesses present a continuing threat.

A hybrid variant has developed and the IUCN says the true ebony has not been “properly secured” in any gene banks in isolation from the hybrid.

A recovery plan includes establishing a new field gene bank at the Millennium Forest.

The IUCN says it has too little information on another species, the St Helena dragonet, to be able to decide whether it is under threat.

It is the smallest fish of its kind in the world, reaching only two centimetres in length.

There is also a lack of information about the endemic St Helena Wrasse. “Little or nothing is known about its biology or the status of its population,” says the official lissting. “More research is needed to determine any major threats for this species, given its very restricted range.”

Other endemic species appear on the list as vulnerable, extinct or “least concern”.

Ascension Island has two critically endangered species, including the parsley fern, which was thought to be extinct until four plants were discovered by Stedson Stroud, Olivia Renshaw and Phil Lambdon in July 2009. About 40 more have since been found.

Ironically, Ascension spurge may be suffering as a result of a programme to eradicate feral cats. Without the cats, there may be more mice and rabbits grazing on the spurge.

Tristan da Cunha’s only critically endangered species is the Tristan albatross, which has suffered a plummeting population thanks to longline fishing and chicks being eaten alive by mice. Even though the chicks are much bigger than the mice, they cannot move quickly enough to fend off their attackers. Rescue packages are planned.

On the Falklands, no species are listed as critically endangered, though Falkland rock cress is “vulnerable” and its range is shrinking, thanks to grazing.

Special ship researches island fisheries
RSPB objects to Shelco resort over wirebird doubts (note: the resort plan was approved)
Endemics for sale: St Helena’s new cash crop?

Red list counts ‘on the brink’ species – BBC
St Helena National Trust
The red list: critically endangered species (search for St Helena, Tristan, Ascension or Falkland)
St Helena earwig – Wikipedia
St Helena ebony – Kew

RSPB objects to Shelco resort over wirebird doubts

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.

Artist's drawing of hotel frontage, with balconies, and pool in front
Artist’s impression: the world’s greenest hotel? (Picture: Shelco)

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.

A block of blue rat poison in a plastic case - a bait station
Rat poison stations would be set up around Broad Bottom (picture: Shelco)

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.

Aerial view overlaid with coloured blocks indicating scrub clearance areas
Scrub clearance is planned over large parts of the Wirebird Hills site (picture: Shelco)

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.

Scrub and flax spreading over the hillside below High Peak
Scrub and flax harbour rats and invade wirebird habitat (picture: Shelco)

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.”

Decline that led to wirebird breeding failure
Endemics for sale: St Helena’s new cash crop?
Will this be the site of the world’s greenest hotel?

Wirebird Hills main planning report – Shelco (warning: 80MB file)
St Helena National Trust
Dr Fiona Burns’ wirebird research thesis

Decline that led to wirebird breeding failures

Wirebird on its nest in grass
Ground-nesting wirebirds are vulnerable to cats and rats (picture: Shelco)

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.

A rat.

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.

Flax and pine range across a spur of land, with a small patch of grass centre of shot
Flax, pine and grass have invaded Sebastopol, by Broad Bottom (picture: Shelco)

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.

Artist's impression of the hotel from the south
An 88-room hotel and tourist lodges are planned at Broad Bottom (picture: Shelco)

“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.

RSPB objects to Shelco resort over wirebird doubts (with more links)

Will this be the site of the world’s greenest hotel?

View across Broad Bottom, with the pointed summit of High Peak behind
HOW GREEN WILL YOUR VALLEY BE? An eco golf course and resort are planned for Broad Bottom (picture: John Grimshaw)

St Helena’s humble wirebird may help developers create “the world’s greenest hotel” on the mellow slopes of Broad Bottom.

Plans for the so-called Wirebird Hills leisure resort – complete with eco-friendly golf course – are going on show on the island after more than a decade of refinement by the St Helena Leisure Corporation (Shelco).

screen shot of Shelco's environmental impact statement opening page
GREEN PAPER: Shelco’s environmental statement runs to 82 pages

Features such as grass roofs and water recycling are now being used widely in new buildings around the world. But the ideas for protecting the wirebird and re-establishing native trees and plants are what set the scheme apart.

They include trying to control rats, which steal wirebird eggs and prey on their chicks. Broad Bottom is one of the last strongholds of the unique St Helena Plover, as it is also known, but no chicks were successfully raised in the area in 2011, and predators are probably to blame.

Sheep would be used to graze the golf course and other land, to bring grass down to the length favoured by wirebirds.

An environmental impact assessment says there would be no “significant adverse impact” from any aspect of the scheme, even to the island’s landscape. Buildings would largely be confined to the edges of the site, where they can be screened with trees.

Plans submitted by the St Helena Leisure Corporation (Shelco) also include growing more fresh food for the whole island, as well as for the proposed 88-suite hotel and 165 holiday homes.

They also deal with historical aspects of the site, which was used as a camp for Boer War prisoners between 1899 and 1903. An interpretation centre and cafe is planned at the top of the site.

The former flax mill at Broad Bottom Farm has been earmarked as a maintenance building for the golf course. Machinery from the mill would be donated for a proposed “flax visitor centre” elsewhere on the island – though there is scepticism about whether this “private sector opportunity” will ever be realised.

The plans are to go on show at public meetings across the island from 14 May 2012:

  • Blue Hill Community Centre, Monday, 5.30 – 7.30pm
  • Half Tree Hollow Community Centre, Tuesday, 5 – 7pm
  • Longwood Community Centre, Wednesday, 5 – 7pm
  • Consulate Hotel, Jamestown, Thursday 5 – 7pm

An 82-page document sets out details of the proposed golf course, swimming pools, tennis courts, market garden, buggy paths, holiday villages, lemon groves and a “Garden of Eden”.

It follows the signing of a “memorandum of agreement” with St Helena Government, setting out a detailed brief for the standards that must be met on the site.

The plans do not say what would happen to people living in the two existing homes on the 163-hectare site, or how it will affect people who cross the land to reach their houses.

Nor do they say whether facilities would be open to islanders and other people not staying in the resort.

Shelco was set up to exploit the economic potential of the island, based on building an airport – a contract it failed to win. Its plans for one of two luxury resorts on the island are seen as vital to creating a vibrant tourist economy and ending decades of dependence on aid.

Its chairman is Sir Nigel Thompson, a senior figure in engineering firm Ove Arup but also a keen environmentalist who has served as chair of the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

He first fell in love with St Helena half a century ago when travelling on a liner that stopped in James Bay, according to an article in Property Week.

The main report from Shelco’s consultants says:

Wirebird Hills at Broad Bottom seeks to deliver a development of international best practice for environmental responsibility and sustainability.

The overall intent is to deliver the world’s greenest hotel, with environmentally responsible leisure-related residences around a world class eco golf course.

The Wirebird Hills at Broad Bottom… will be an exemplar project on the world stage.

It is hoped that further details of the scheme – including images of the proposed buildings – will appear on this website in coming days.


Looks like a lovely plan – I hope it is made. Hee Young Ra, via Facebook

Champagne launch for the Department of Everything – St Helena’s environment directorate
‘Eco resort’ moves a step closer in wirebird valley
Do the maths, says economist: tourists equal millions
New planning rules protect island

Shelco – moving forward (new agreement on Broad Bottom development)
Eco resort planned for St Helena (Property Week)

‘Eco resort’ moves a step closer in wirebird valley

Efforts to create an “eco friendly” tourist resort in St Helena have cleared another hurdle, with the signing of a new agreement that promises work and housing for islanders.

The scheme involves a luxury hotel and spa, a golf course and tourist chalets at Broad Bottom – one of the prime breeding sites of the island’s vulnerable wirebird, which is found nowhere else in the world.

The population of the bird – also known as the St Helena Plover – has now risen above the official “endangered” mark, but the St Helena National Trust has warned that its numbers could fall because of future tourism developments.

The government says the resort must be built “in an environmentally highly sensitive way with a focus on blending with the countryside and its ecology, and having a low carbon footprint.”

The St Helena Leisure Corporation Ltd (Shelco) still has to gain formal planning consent for the development. The UK-based company must then apply for an “immigrant landholding licence” before it can buy land for the resort.

The government says it is “not in any way obliged to grant development permission.”

Its statement says:

“By providing up-market tourist accommodation with ‘green’ environmentally-friendly credentials, the Shelco project could become an important component of the current work to develop St Helena’s economy.

“The agreement includes a commitment by Shelco to use its best endeavours to employ a St Helenian workforce, while providing appropriate training and housing for its employees.

“Similarly, in operating the resort Shelco has committed to endeavour to source food and consumables from St Helena.”

An agreement to progress the resort project was signed by then-governor Andrew Gurr in May 2008, after legal advice over objections to the scheme.

An updated contract was signed on 10 April 2012 to fit in with reforms to the island’s policies and laws, required by the UK government in return for funding for the airport.

They include a new land development control plan, approved by councillors on 22 March 2012. Three weeks after the decision, details have yet to be made public.

Once the Broad Bottom planning application has been submitted – along with a study on its likely impact on the environment – islanders will be given 28 days to make comments on it. The detailed scheme must fit in with special policies laid down for building at Broad Bottom.

It will then be considered by the planning board in a public session. Consent will only be given with a “comprehensive” set of strict conditions.

The process is closely modelled on the long-established system in the UK.

Shelco has been pressing for the chance to invest in St Helena for more than a decade, since it first offered to build an airport for the island. The contract for that project eventually went to South African firm Basil Read, which started construction work in January.

A copy of the new memorandum of agreement is to be placed on the SHG website.

New planning rules protect island – but what are they?


Wirebird: endangered species consultation (scroll down for St Helena National Trust view)
St Helena Government