In a series of blog posts Dan Pullen looks at the challenges of saving nature on one of the most remote islands in the world, St Helena, here’s the first instalment.
Wirebird Conservation & Airport Issues
My colleague Jonathan Hall (who you’ll be hearing from later) and I recently spent a hectic eight days on St Helena, a UK overseas territory slap in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. This island, formed by a volcano on the mid-Atlantic ridge, is 1000 miles from the nearest land; its isolation over millions of years developed a unique ecosystem with an amazing variety of invertebrates, plants and birds.
Unfortunately, its discovery by the Portuguese in the 16th century and the subsequent introduction of numerous invasive mammals and plants by visiting sailors and early colonists led to the near-wholesale destruction of the island’s original ecology and the extinction of many of its species, such as a giant flightless hoopoe (wouldn’t it have been great to meet one of those?). However, lots of them did cling on and there is now a concerted effort to save and restore what’s left.
Getting to St Helena is still no simple task – you have to fly to either Ascension Island or Cape Town in South Africa and then take a significant sea voyage on the RMS St Helena – the last Royal Mail ship in existence and the island’s lifeline, bringing goods and people.
Vast cliffs shrouded in early morning cloud - the approach to St Helena
We awoke on the last day of a surprisingly calm voyage and stumbled out on deck to find we were in the last stages of our approach to the island. Nothing really prepares you for how rugged and apparently inhospitable the island seems from the ocean – it’s surrounded by vast cliffs, which were shrouded in early morning cloud and mist as we approached, giving it a forbidding, enchanted feel. Once on the island, you quickly discover that this unpromising exterior hides an extraordinary variety of landscapes – from the Balearic-like scrub vegetation on the steep valleys around the sunny capital Jamestown, to verdant green pasture and forest in the centre reminiscent of Northumberland, to lush cloud forest on the peaks and then blasted, eroded semi-desert in the south and east of the island.
As you may have read in previous blogs, the only surviving endemic land-bird is the St Helena Plover, or wirebird (a name derived from its long, spindly legs). Endemic means it only occurs on St Helena – giving the island and the UK (as St Helena is a UK Overseas Territory) a profound responsibility to ensure a positive future for this engaging and threatened bird.
The RSPB have been working with the St Helena National Trust (SHNT) and the island government to stabilise and restore the population after a serious decline in the first years of this millennium – and it’s great that this work is now bearing fruit, with the population recovering and now standing at over 400 individuals.
It was fantastic to get out with the Trust wirebird team to see the birds on Woody Ridge – there were numerous pairs flying and running around us. I was accompanying Eddie Duff (known locally as the ‘wirebird man’) who knows wirebirds inside out – on our route he noticed a female giving us a ‘broken wing display’ where she runs away with her wing out, trying to tempt us away from her nest. After moving away and waiting patiently for her return, Eddie quickly ascertained where her two eggs were – two small speckled gems in a shallow depression, which was impossible for my untrained eye to see, even a metre away.
Wirebird nest with two eggs
Our route overlooked Prosperous Plain which is the location for St Helena’s new airport, which is currently being constructed – it’s one of the flatter areas of the island. This airport is being funded by the UK government in an effort to improve St Helena’s access to the outside world and provide an impetus to develop the island’s economy, which is currently heavily dependant on UK financial support. The RSPB and the SHNT have been hard at work with the island government over the last few years to provide mitigation areas for those parts of the plain that will be lost to breeding wirebirds as a result of the airport runway and terminal.
A ‘mitigation area’ entails clearing and improving grazing pastures on nearby parts of the island – so increasing the habitat available to wirebirds, whilst, at the same time, increasing the quality and amount of grazing land available to local farmers – a good example of a ‘win-win’ solution. It was great to see the before and after photos of the cleared pasture, and to see wirebird chicks running around the improved areas on Deadwood Plain.
We’ll be working with the Trust to look at what further work we can do to ensure that wirebirds continue to thrive. This may well entail working with the government to ensure pastures are maintained properly and predators are controlled. Another important area is ensuring that the much-needed infrastructure and tourism development on the island has minimal impact on it fabulous natural history – something I’ll discuss in our next St Helena blog entry.
Pasture on St Helena
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In a second instalment from on of the UK’s Overseas Territories, Dan Pullen, RSPB’s International