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Magic In The Mist: The St Helena Cloud Forest

Ross Henry climbing the steep slope with a bag of 'dogwood' endemic seedlings on his back, ready to be planted. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Ross Henry climbing the steep slope with a bag of ‘whitewood’ endemic seedlings on his back, ready to be planted.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

BATTLE FOR THE NATIONAL PARK | Darrin Henry

Machete wielding men have been stalking the cloud forest slopes of St Helena’s central peaks for the last 20 years, hacking and digging out the New Zealand flax that has choked the landscape for decades. Replacing the sea of fluttering flax fingers are thousands and thousands of carefully planted endemic ferns and trees.

Why This Is A Big Deal

If you’ve ever despaired clearing weeds out of your garden, spare a thought for this small conservation team who have a whole mountain to look after. It’s no joke.

Diana’s Peak National Park is over 700 acres (291 hectares) in size, slightly bigger than a square mile. (The entire size of St Helena is only 48 square miles.)

About 40 acres of native habitat within the park has been restored so far.

Conservation team member, William Crowie, clearing the hillside of flax. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Conservation team member, William Crowie, clearing the hillside of flax.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Terrestrial Conservation Officer, Mike Jervois, sharing some fascinating facts with us about the cloud forest and endemic habitat as we make our way under the tree fern canopy. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Terrestrial Conservation Officer, Mike Jervois, sharing some fascinating facts with us about the cloud forest and endemic habitat as we make our way under the tree fern canopy.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

This conservation project is one of St Helena’s quiet but enormous success stories.

Mike Jervois is an ecologist from Australia. For the last 18 months he’s been on St Helena working as a Terrestrial Conservation Officer, responsible for ensuring none of the endemics go extinct and managing the ongoing restoration project. He reminded me how important the peaks habitat is.

“This island holds a third of the endemic bio-diversity of all of the UK. That [includes] all of the UK [mainland] and all of the overseas territories as well.”

Endemic means it is unique to this location and found nowhere else on the planet. A big deal when only last week the Living Planet Report published by the WWF said 58% of the world’s wildlife was lost from 1970-2012, with habitat loss cited as one of the key contributing factors.

A typical view of Diana's Peak National Park, from lower down. Here the cloud cover drifts right across the three central peaks, as seen from near Hutts Gate on the road to Longwood. The separation of endemic forest and flax can be see just below the mist.

A typical view of Diana’s Peak National Park, from lower down. Here the cloud cover drifts right across the three central peaks, as seen from near Hutts Gate on the road to Longwood. The separation of endemic forest and flax can be see just below the mist.

Each newly reclaimed section of hillside takes two years of monthly attention before it can thrive almost unaided. Almost!

Expansion of native habitat automatically adds to the overall weeding and vegetation control, making this a never ending and growing undertaking. The only advantage with the flax is nothing else grows, not even weeds.

Guess What St Helena Stores In The Cloud?

Diana’s Peak is the highest point on St Helena at 823m and positioned between Mount Actaeon to the east and Cuckhold’s Point to the west. As one of the island’s 21 post box walks, Diana’s Peak is easily accessible via well-marked hiking trails which are also maintained by the peaks conservation team. The views on a clear day are spectacular making it a popular, high quality excursion.

Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena, is a superb hiking experience with clearly marked trails that link the three main peaks. It's a good idea to go with an experienced guide if it's your first time as in a few places near the top there are steep drop-offs through the foliage that can give a false sense of security underfoot.

Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena, is a superb hiking experience with clearly marked trails that link the three main peaks. It’s a good idea to go with an experienced guide if it’s your first time as in a few places near the top there are steep drop-offs through the foliage that can give a false sense of security underfoot.

Just below Mount Actaeon the trail leads under the tree fern canopy. The boardwalks have been built in the more difficult parts of the trail, another part of the conservation team's work. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Just below Mount Actaeon the trail leads under the tree fern canopy. The boardwalks have been built in the more difficult parts of the trail, another part of the conservation team’s work.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Inside the cloud forest of Diana's Peak National Park. The large Norfolk pine tree on the summit of Mount Actaeon appearing momentarily through the mist.

Inside the cloud forest of Diana’s Peak National Park. The large Norfolk pine tree on the summit of Mount Actaeon appearing momentarily through the mist.

Pretty but not native. The 'Bolivian fuchsia' (left) and 'trailing fuchsia' are found on the upper ridges of Diana's Peak National Park. The trailing fuchsia especially is described as a problematic invasive in sensitive, endemic-rich habitats.

Pretty but not native. The ‘Bolivian fuchsia’ (left) and ‘trailing fuchsia’ are found on the upper ridges of Diana’s Peak National Park. The trailing fuchsia especially is described as a problematic invasive in sensitive, endemic-rich habitats.

Yet even when the peaks are shrouded in mist, they remain a special place to visit, perhaps more so from an ecological viewpoint, as this is St Helena’s very own cloud forest.

A cloud forest is a vital eco-system where moisture from the clouds is extracted onto the plant leaves and then drips to the ground. In dry seasons cloud forests can double the effective rainfall and increase it by around 10% in the rainy season. For an island that relies on springs for fresh water and is currently experiencing a drought, the importance of Diana’s Peak cloud forest can’t be overstated.

A study was carried out a few years ago by the UK based, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

“They tested whether there was a difference between flax and native vegetation for water retention in soils and water run-off,” explained Mike. “They proved very simply that flax absorbs more water and doesn’t give as much water run-off as the native vegetation.”

For more insight we recommend this post from the ‘5 Gigabyte Diet’ blog by Ceri Sansom, about an exciting project currently underway to investigate how different plant species can directly help the island’s water supply.

Diana's Peak National Park is also a cloud forest. In dry seasons cloud forests can double the effective rainfall and increase it by around 10% in the rainy season, making this a vital source of water for St Helena. Walking in the cloud forest can be an enchanting experience.

Diana’s Peak National Park is also a cloud forest. In dry seasons cloud forests can double the effective rainfall and increase it by around 10% in the rainy season, making this a vital source of water for St Helena. Walking in the cloud forest can be an enchanting experience.

Having A Good Coud Forest Clear Out

If you are wondering, what’s the difference between a cloud forest and a rain forest, wonder no more.

Rain forests are typically found at lower altitudes making them warmer; the topography also tends to be flatter and is dominated by tall trees. In contrast, cloud forests exist at higher altitudes, they’re cooler and the landscape is more mountainous with plenty of peaks and valleys. Trees in a cloud forest are typically shorter and crooked. The vegetation is also furry-like (my non-technical expression); moss, ferns and lichens cover the trunks and branches of the trees. While rain forests rely on rainfall, cloud forests transfer moisture from the clouds via persistent condensation.

The peaceful experience of hiking in the cloud forest beneath the St Helena endemic vegetation. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

The peaceful experience of hiking in the cloud forest beneath the St Helena endemic vegetation.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Back to the ‘mountain garden.’

Sharon and I couldn’t have timed this story any better. The operation to clear flax for new habitat only happens about once every two years and the clearing process itself only lasts a week. By chance we visited right in the middle of flax clearing.

Basically a vertical strip of flax is torn off the hillside; from a distance it looks like the aftermath of a landslide. This vegetation clearing was previously done in horizontal ‘wind rows’ but the vertical technique is proving much more efficient.

The vertical method works from the bottom up. Big clumps of flax are pulled out from the ground and these large bundles of fibre and muddy roots, the size of large suitcases, are sent cart-wheeling down the hillside at a fair old pace. Don’t get in the way!

The view of the strip of hillside being cleared of flax from across the valley. Another good angle to show how steep the terrain is. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

The view of the strip of hillside being cleared of flax from across the valley. Another good angle to show how steep the terrain is.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Climbing up the hillside during the flax clearing process. This picture is a great example of how steep the slope is. Graeme Leo (right) told us the work is lot more dangerous when it is wet. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Climbing up the hillside during the flax clearing process. This picture is a great example of how steep the slope is. Graeme Leo (right) told us the work is lot more dangerous when it is wet.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

“I thought there would be rats…”

The team of seven Saints doing this job make manoeuvring on the steep terrain look easy. It wasn’t until we decided to climb to the top where the guys were chopping out did we appreciate just how steep it was. At a couple of points they lowered flax cord to pull us up over near vertical sections. Carrying camera gear was our excuse for needing a little assistance!

This is me, needing some help climbing up the steep hillside during the flax clearing process. William is pulling me up with a length of flax. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

This is me, needing some help climbing up the steep hillside during the flax clearing process. William is pulling me up with a length of flax.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Leslie Benjamin is one of the long term workers with nearly 15 years on the project. Graham Leo on the other hand, with just four years on the slopes, is new! Incredibly, Graham had never even been on the peaks until he started this job, despite living in Levelwood, directly below.

“When I first was looking from down the road up here, I thought there would be rats everywhere,” Graham tells me. “But when I came up here it was different.”

These guys certainly work with an amazing view out their ‘office window.’

Denzil George agrees about the benefits: “It’s quiet up here. You can see all the way ‘round. And it’s fresh.”

Abandoned On The Mountain

Once the hillside has been stripped back to bare earth, planting begins the following week.

William Crowie (left) and Leslie Benjamin, picking out seedlings from the nursery to take up on the peaks for planting. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

William Crowie (left) and Leslie Benjamin, picking out seedlings from the nursery to take up on the peaks for planting.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Lobelia seedlings loaded in the bag at the nursery ready to be carried up onto the peaks for planting. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Lobelia seedlings loaded in the bag at the nursery ready to be carried up onto the peaks for planting.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Denzil George carrying the seedlings up onto the peaks to be planted. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Denzil George carrying the seedlings up onto the peaks to be planted.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

A nursery halfway up the mountain is used to grow the thousands of endemic seedlings. There is no easy way to transfer these up to the newly cleared site; it’s good old fashioned, ‘carry-it-on-your-back’ work.

The rate of planting is really impressive. The machetes are used to prise open a hole in the soft soil and in go the baby endemics. They look so tiny and vulnerable on the steep hillside. Afterwards, as we walked away I glanced back at the little green shoots shivering in the breeze, about to spend their first night out in the open. Many will perish but most should flourish. Rabbits are one of the troublesome pests I’m told. The current lack of rainfall is also a factor. The St Helena MET office has released figures that show rainfall for the period January to August this year (2016) is the worst it’s been for at least 15 years.

On the slope with Leslie Benjamin, planting endemics. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

On the slope with Leslie Benjamin, planting endemics.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

William Crowie, planting endemic seedlings on the hillside. The ferns and trees are all inter-mixed across the site. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

William Crowie, planting endemic seedlings on the hillside. The ferns and trees are all inter-mixed across the site.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Sharon on the hillside photographing William Crowie planting endemics. Note all the little green seedlings across the ground that have already been planted over the last two days. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Sharon on the hillside photographing William Crowie planting endemics. Note all the little green seedlings across the ground that have already been planted over the last two days.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

A freshly planted 'black cabbage' endemic seedling ready for its first night below the slopes of Mount Actaeon. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

A freshly planted ‘black cabbage’ endemic seedling ready for its first night below the slopes of Mount Actaeon.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Trapped On The Mother-Ship

Mike took us to view a small patch of re-claimed habitat, just six months old, ideal for demonstrating the cloud forest regeneration process.

Examples of the tree fern carrying other plants on its trunk are everywhere. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Examples of the tree fern carrying other plants on its trunk are everywhere.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

The ferns spring up in the first six months, creating shade, which helps retain moisture in the soil below. After a year or two the endemic trees push through the fern cover and then receive a growth spurt taking them up 3 or 4 metres to form a higher canopy over the next three years.

The adult endemic tree ferns then serve as a ‘mother-ship’ for new growth. Falling seeds from ‘black cabbage’ trees, for example, are trapped in the soft, fibrous trunks of the tree ferns.

“They are the perfect growing medium for seedlings,” explains Mike.

“The black cabbage roots will go into the tree fern itself. When they touch the ground after many years, they’ll get the nutrients and just bolt. They’ll get really big, so big the tree fern will fall over, but because it’s covered in growing nodes, it’ll hit the ground and continue growing.”

It’s a fascinating cycle, one where the different species are inter-dependent on each other for survival.

Endemic plants of St Helena Island: Jellico, Whitewood, Black Cabbage, Tree Fern and Dogwood. The blushing snail on the Dogwood is also endemic to St Helena.

Endemic plants of St Helena Island: Jellico, Whitewood, Black Cabbage, Tree Fern and Dogwood. The blushing snail on the Dogwood is also endemic to St Helena.

Our Favourite Endemic, Is…

Hiking the peaks is a wonderful way to view St Helena’s endemic plants up close. The habitat has been restored from the top down; a clear horizontal-ish line separates the endemic forest from the flax below.

The tiny flower of the 'lobelia' endemic plant, measuring approximately 26mm across. This endemic favours the higher reaches of Diana's Peak National Park, 750m and above. Lobelia flowers can be seen most times of the year except in summer.

The tiny flower of the ‘lobelia’ endemic plant, measuring approximately 26mm across. This endemic favours the higher reaches of Diana’s Peak National Park, 750m and above. Lobelia flowers can be seen most times of the year except in summer.

Jellico is one of the easiest endemics to see up close; it grows alongside the hiking trails and some of the wooden stairways on the ‘Black Gate’ side of the peaks. This is Sharon’s favourite endemic.

Mike likes the black cabbage. With its white and yellow flower clusters they are also easy to spot as they protrude from the fern canopy and are the tallest trees in the forest.

The giant endemic tree fern is the lasting symbol of St Helena’s cloud forest. The fan shaped leaves are either striking against the clear blue sky or mystically revealing themselves through the swirling mist. Easily my favourite.

Lourens Malan (left) is the project manager of a two-year Darwin-Plus funded project “Securing St Helena's cloud forest trees & associated invertebrates.” Here working on creating new seed orchards with fellow ecologist, Andrew Darlow, in the Diana's Peak National Park nursery.

Lourens Malan (left) is the project manager of a two-year Darwin-Plus funded project “Securing St Helena’s cloud forest trees & associated invertebrates.” Here working on creating new seed orchards with fellow ecologist, Andrew Darlow, in the Diana’s Peak National Park nursery.

A few of the other more prominent endemics include the ‘dogwood,’ the ‘whitewood’ and both the ‘he cabbage’ and the ‘she cabbage.’ Altogether there are 45 endemic species of vascular plants across St Helena, 32 of which are flowering plants and 13 are fern species.

The cloud forest habitat of the Peaks National Park contains around 119 endemic species, both plants and invertebrates, which are found only on the peaks and nowhere else in the world.

As a square mile on the planet goes, this one is quite special.

The endemic forest thicket of black cabbage and tree ferns. Diana's Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

The endemic forest thicket of black cabbage and tree ferns.
Diana’s Peak National Park, St Helena Island.

Acknowledgments:

‘Flowering Plants & Ferns of St Helena’ by Phil Lambdon was once again an invaluable resource.

The conservation team: Mike Jervois, Leslie Benjamin, William Crowie, Denzil George, Ross Henry, Derek Youde, Graham Leo and Melvin Roberts. Generous with time and expertise throughout.

COMMENTS

  • Larry Macemore

    February 8, 2017

    What a beautiful place, and you don’t have to worry about stepping on a snake.

    • February 15, 2017

      Hey Larry, it really is such a wonderful advantage of the St Helena outdoors – no snakes, bears or any wildlife to worry about. It’s even great not to worry about bumping into people in isolated places. Thanks for the comment, Cheers 🙂

  • susan Homolka

    November 16, 2016

    Great memories of hiking Diana’s Peak. Knock your socks off kind of views. My favorite endemic is the Spikey Yellow Woodlouse, thanks to Amy Dutton’s enthusiasm!

    • November 17, 2016

      “Knock your socks off” views – love it! Might have to ‘borrow’ that some day 🙂 Thanks for the comment Susan. Hope you get to hike the peaks again! Cheers

  • November 15, 2016

    No mist when I was on Dianas Peak on Xmas Day 1997. Lovely photos.

    • November 15, 2016

      What a lovely surprise – 17 years ago now since you showed us around Gotland, still remember that evening watching the sunset from the coastal cliff, it was soooo chilly 🙂 Plenty of mist on the peaks at the moment John 🙂 Cheers

      • John Ekwall

        November 15, 2016

        Well. just a month ago I visited the cliff on Gotland, sadly without my friend – he died some weeks ago. But I am preparing a revisit to St Helena when the airplanes don’t bumps down…
        Cheers from a misty Sweden
        John

  • November 2, 2016

    Phenomenal pictures as normal Darin!

    • November 2, 2016

      Cheers Derek, the pictures are a combination of the DSLR, the compact and the phone camera!

  • ifti

    November 1, 2016

    What a magical place St. Helena is… Simple WoW….
    Diana’s peak is Magical, simple out of this world…

    • November 2, 2016

      Thanks for the comment Ifti. The cloud forest is magical once you realise what is actually going on in it. Wow indeed 🙂

  • Roger Bagley

    November 1, 2016

    Congratulations on a fascinating & informative blog that reminded us of the great pleasure we’d had on our 3 peaks walk.The work to give the endemics a helping hand looks enormous. We very much look forward to seeing the progress on our next visit.

    • November 2, 2016

      Thanks Roger. We’re looking forward now to checking in on the seedlings progress and seeing how the habitat develops. What an amazing project, eh!

  • david sinclair wilson

    November 1, 2016

    Everyone should see this. A remarkable project.

    • November 2, 2016

      We would agree David 🙂 Cheers

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