A SURVIVAL BATTLE WE DON’T DARE LOSE | Darrin Henry
The formal roots of Conservation on St Helena were established 38 years ago following the dramatic recovery of the St Helena ebony, previously thought to be extinct. The late George Benjamin, now an icon of local conservation, along with Professor Quentin Cronk, discovered the bush, growing on the cliffs of Blue Point. It took a daring rope climb by George’s brother Charlie to reach the ebony. That was 1980 and the catalyst for introducing structure to St Helena’s conservation efforts.
Fast forward 38 years and today, 20 July, 2018, the St Helena Endemic Nursery is throwing open its green, net-covered doors to mark the anniversary. The public along with island dignitaries will be invited in to tour the facility and learn about this vitally important aspect of conservation on St Helena.
Vanessa Thomas-Williams, is the Nursery Officer in charge. We are meeting in the Nursery’s lecture room to discuss their work, a couple of days before the public Open Day. The desperate wail of busy grass strimmers can be heard outside as we chat. Vanessa tries, but is unable to hide her pride in the incredible work being undertaken by her small team of four at the Nursery, plus an apprentice.
Saving The Bastard Gumwood
What’s all the fuss about then? I begin by prodding Vanessa to tell me why conservation on St Helena is something worth celebrating. She wastes no time laying it out for me.
The Bastard Gumwood endemic is one of the big conservation success stories for St Helena. Vanessa affectionately refers to this project as “our baby” as she explains the ‘four-generation’ steps that took nearly four decades.
Believed to have already been extinct, a solitary Bastard Gumwood tree was found on the Horse Pasture terrain in 1982 by St Helenian ecologist, Stedson Stroud.
Seeds were duly collected, from which a single tree was established at Pounceys – the second generation. Hand-pollination on this tree at Pounceys was carried out manually, every day during the flowering season by a team from conservation. A two-hour exercise each time. The propagation success rate for this new seed was one in a thousand; 0.1%. Not good.
Building The Living Gene Bank
Then a breakthrough in 2009 when a second tree was discovered growing in the wild, on the cliffs around Botley’s, by ecologists, Lourens Malan and Andrew Darlow. When this (third generation) tree was used to pollinate the one at Pounceys, seed propagation rates soared from 0.1% to 50%.
The fourth generation step was completed with the establishment of a Bastard Gumwood, living gene bank at the Nursery.
Today this living gene bank is thriving, with over 10,000 trees. It extends to a further two sites of Bastard Gumwoods in the wetlands of Casons and the drylands of Drummonds Point.
It’s a superb, uplifting story, made all the more special when Vanessa took us to see the Bastard Gumwood living gene bank.
This really is something for St Helena to celebrate and shout about.
Conservation Is A Team Game
The St Helena Endemic Nursery is at Scotland, in the St Paul’s district. It’s part of St Helena Government’s ANRD (Agriculture and Natural Resources Department) complex. At approx. 500m above sea level, the climate has that cooler, distinct country feel that comes with increased rainfall, more than we see around the island’s lower coastal areas. Perfect conditions for the endemics.
Vanessa and her team have a daunting task. They manage and maintain 15 endemic conservation sites across the island as well as endemic seed collection across the whole island.
“Ideally we need 45 people,” said Vanessa, when I asked what she saw as the ideal setup. “One person to each endemic species would be ideal, because they are all so endangered.”
It turns out all 45 endemics plants on the island are pretty much endangered. Because of the tiny habitat area that is St Helena, the endemics are always at risk from an invasive pest or disease which could effectively wipe out a complete species.
“The St Helena False Gumwood is one we worry about,” says Vanessa, “we have just six left in the wild. We do have a living gene bank but anything could happen.”
The Barn Fern, and the Tea Plant are two others whose existence is delicate.
“The Large Bellflower is the most endangered at the moment. Lourens [part of the Peaks conservation team] has it growing on Peaks but only little clumps, less than 100 little tiny plants.”
I can see why one person per endemic would be ideal.
Why The St Helena Endemics Are So Special
St Helena boasts 45 endemic species of vascular plants. Endemic means unique to this location and found nowhere else on earth. A third of the UK’s bio-diversity, (mainland and all of its overseas territories combined) is found on St Helena. It’s clear, conservation on St Helena is vitally important.
Visitors at the Nursery’s Open Day will be treated to musical entertainment, games for the children and refreshments which will include chocolate cake and St Helena plo! What’s not to enjoy about this?
But hopefully people will also take time to talk to the conservationists and learn about the work they do, and learn about one or two of the endemics growing inside the Nursery. They all seem to have their own little interesting stories to get excited about.
Every Endemic Has A Story
Boneseed – Osteospermum sanctae-helenae
The Boneseed I learned, is the only one of our flowering endemics whose flower is not white. It is yellow. It’s an endemic most people are unlikely to encounter naturally as it grows around the barren coastal hillsides. At the nursery there are flowering samples on display in shade house 3.
Old Father Live Forever – Pelargonium cotyledonis
This must surely win the best name contest for an endemic! Old Father Live Forever reminds me of a Japanese bonsai tree. It’s a beautiful little plant that is normally only found in a few coastal locations.
Barn Fern – Ceterach haughtonii
The Barn Fern is one of those endemic species under immediate extinction threat. Construction work on Prosperous Bay Plain for the airport meant 70% of the Barn Fern from that area had to be removed. It grows in rock crevices in dry areas and was ‘known from a stone wall in High Knoll Fort for at least 60 years.’ *
Salad plant – Hypertelis acida
The flowers on the salad plant endemic are tiny, but beautiful up close. Described by Phil Lambdon * as ‘a highly palatable species, with the inflorescences and leaf tips often severed by rabbits and/or mice.’
An Endemic For Pat Joshua
Rock Millet grass – Panicum joshuai
Vanessa fondly calls this, “Pat J’s grass,” as it’s named after the late Pat Joshua, a keen St Helena conservationist. Both Sharon and I remember Pat which made it a lovely moment on our tour.
False Gumwood – Commidendrum spurium
The False Gumwood is very rare. It’s another of the endemic species under immediate extinction threat. Only six trees remain in the wild, so we were privileged to view a young sapling at the Nursery.
Diana’s Peak grass – Carex dianae
This type of Diana’s Peak grass was found on The Barn. Diana’s Peak grass is normally found in the cloud forest zone, above 750m. The conservation team are collecting DNA from the grass growing in different regions which will be sent away for analysis. It might be that we have another sub-species.
Neglected Tuft Sedge – Bulbostylis neglecta
Yet another endemic under serious extinction threat. In fact, the Neglected Tuft Sedge was only re-discovered in 2008 after being assumed extinct, so this endemic is actually making a comeback. It’s good to see the seedlings all well cared for in the Nursery.
St Helena Plantain – Plantago robusta
First recorded over 200 years ago, in 1800 by Burchell, this endemic is described as a, ‘rosette-forming perennial herb.’ * It prefers wet cliff habitats and has been found around Heart Shaped Waterfall, Peak Dale Waterfall and Man and Horse.
Conservation on St Helena – Threats & Weaknesses
Conservation on St Helena is vital, especially since the airport has opened and we’ve now lost that five-day insulating gap to the outside world. Effective bio-security is crucial with the transfer of people and cargo from the African mainland now just a matter of four hour’s travel time.
The endemics already have to contend with threats such as the root mealybug found in drylands, rabbits, rats (who strip the bark off the gumwoods), aphids, white flies etc.
Weeds and other invasive plants are a constant menace.
And let’s not forget humans can be environmental pests! Education of the public to respect the island’s endemics is an ongoing task facing conservationists. An Environmental Protection Ordinance, which came into force in 2016, carries fines of up to £50,000 or 12 months in prison for anyone caught wilfully damaging St Helena’s endemics.
Adding Up The Big Numbers
Sharon and I were inspired from talking to Vanessa and touring the Nursery. It’s uplifting when we speak to people on St Helena who are genuinely passionate about their work and doing good for the island.
Some of the achievements are just stunning.
“From January 2009 up to November 2017 we have produced 72,304 plants and they’ve all gone back into the wild,” Vanessa told me, “that’s leaving out the ones in the nursery and what was planted since then.”
Vanessa lets me know that all seed collections go onto databases and every plant produced by the nursery is carefully recorded. “There are a few failures, but overall our success rates are high.”
Conservation, Something To Celebrate
I should mention here that conservation is not confined just to the St Helena Endemic Nursery. Not by a long way. We’ve already posted a story about the Diana’s Peak National Park conservation team and another article about the National Trust’s efforts to protect the endemic St Helena Wirebird.
SHG’s, Environmental Management Department (EMD) coordinates and manages the overall task of conservation on St Helena including the marine elements.
There is also the St Helena National Trust which adds a sizeable contribution to the island’s conservation efforts.
But for today, we’re acknowledging the St Helena Endemic Nursery and their celebration of 38 years of conservation on St Helena. “We last did this five years ago,” smiles Vanessa, “I think it’s about time we do it again.”
Absolutely. Well done all.
It’s time for some well-deserved chocolate cake and plo!
* Reference acknowledgement: Flowering Plants & Ferns of St Helena by Phil Lambdon
A useful link: St Helena Conservation Facebook Page