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Thefts hit effort to revive endangered island plants

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Gumwood trees: saplings have been stolen, along with critically-endangered rosemary plants. Picture by John Grimshaw

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.”

Gumwoods once covered much of St Helena. Picture by John Grimshaw

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.

Wirebird remains on global danger list, thanks to airport
Endemics for sale: St Helena’s new cash crop?

St Helena’s Darwin Initiative project
St Helena Rosemary
St Helena gumwood
John Grimshaw’s St Helena picture gallery

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