BATTLE FOR THE NATIONAL PARK | Darrin Henry
Machete wielding men have been stalking the upper 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.
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.
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.
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.
Having A Good 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.
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!
“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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.