Saving the cloud forest: Funding announcement will restore ‘most precious wildlife site on UK soil’

Thursday 5 August 2021

  • New funding from the UK government will help save critically endangered, unique wildlife and fresh water supplies on the UK Overseas Territory of St Helena, one of the most remote inhabited islands on Earth
  • St Helena’s ancient cloud forest is the most important site for wildlife on British soil, with at least 250 species found nowhere else on the planet, including a woodlouse that glows in the dark
  • As well as holding one-sixth of the UK’s unique wildlife, these mist-shrouded mountain peaks provide most of the drought-prone island’s fresh water

Today the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office has announced it will help restore one of the most precious sites for wildlife on UK soil, St Helena’s cloud forest, protecting the rare species that depend upon it from disappearing forever.

St Helena is a UK Overseas Territory that rises out of the south Atlantic, 2,000km off the coast of West Africa. Clouds cloak the mountains in a protective blanket, creating a unique   habitat for species that don’t exist anywhere else in the world – there are daisies which have evolved into large trees, blushing snails, and woodlice that glow under UV light.

Cloud forests are found in tropical mountainous regions where the trees are constantly surrounded by fog. They cover less than 0.4% of the world’s land area but are home to an estimated 15% of all species. Over the last 40 years cloud forests have decreased almost 20%.

St Helena’s cloud forest has declined from an estimated 600 hectares before humans’ arrival to just 16 hectares today. The area is protected within the ‘Peaks National Park’, but funding was needed to prevent the remaining fragments being lost forever. They are home to over half of the unique species that live on the island, but many have already been lost, such as the St Helena olive tree which went extinct in 2003, making it the most recent extinction on UK soil.

The Portuguese discovered St Helena back in 1502 and began using it as a location to refuel and restock on long ocean voyages. They brought with them goats, as well as rats and mice which began to eat their way through much of the plant and animal life. In 1659, the British colonised the island and began cutting down trees for timber and in later centuries planting invasive non-native New Zealand flax plants, which destroyed much of the cloud forest, to make rope for ships and grow the island’s economy. Today, fast-growing invasive plant species including the New Zealand flax threaten to overwhelm the remaining fragments.

This destruction of the cloud forest also threatens the 4,500 people who live on St Helena. Almost half of the island’s fresh water is provided by these high peaks, with 60% of that being obtained via mist capture. The island has already faced three severe droughts in the past decade, when the whole Territory was at risk of running out of water. Climate change projections for St Helena predict a major increase in severe drought events.

The St Helena Government and local residents have worked tirelessly to protect the incredible natural heritage of the island, even using their own gardens for emergency conservation work. Since 2018 the RSPB has been co-ordinating a new partnership between the St Helena Government, St Helena National Trust, St Helena’s water utility company (Connect St Helena), The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Arctium, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, the British Geological Survey, and independent experts to develop a new management and restoration plan.

The UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) is providing £900,000 for the first year of this long-term restoration project which will start immediately and aims to increase cloud forest habitat by 25% over five years and boost the water supply by a fifth.

This restoration project will create new cloud forest habitat, re-vegetating around the remaining cloud forest fragments, along the highest ridges, and in key areas of mist-capture.  Important new development opportunities will also be developed through tourism, education, and conservation job training.

Jonathan Hall, RSPB Head of UK Overseas Territories, said: “Holding a third of all unique British species in an area roughly the size of the Isle of Wight, St Helena provides a precious refuge for nature. The island is home to hundreds of threatened species, and it would be a travesty to lose any more of its incredible wildlife and plants on our watch.

“The fragments of the cloud forest which still survive are magical, harbouring one-sixth of all unique British species and capturing incredible amounts of moisture. Many of these species are disappearing before our eyes, choked by invasive species, so we are delighted to be starting this restoration before they are lost forever.

“The RSPB has been working with the amazing team on St Helena for about 20 years, but this is the most ambitious and exciting conservation work yet. With the expertise of scientists on island and support from the FCDO, we can bring this special habitat back to its former glory, protect the incredible species that depend on the cloud forest from extinction and help revive our world.”

“This project is above all a testament to the power of partnerships - only by individuals, companies, NGOs and Governments all working together can we now save this forest for wildlife, water security and the local community. We hope it can be a blueprint for future partnerships.”  

This project will build upon the RSPB’s long-standing relationship with St Helena developed through work done to save the St Helena plover, or wirebird. The wirebird is the only surviving species of the eight unique birds which were found on the island when humans arrived, though it was not found in the cloud forest. In the 2000s it suffered steep declines and by 2004 only 235 individuals remained in the world, resulting in the species being listed as Critically Endangered. The St Helena National Trust and RSPB worked urgently to save the wirebird, and the population has now recovered.

UK Minister for the Environment, Lord Goldsmith, said: “St Helena’s cloud forest is perhaps the UK’s single most important conservation stronghold. This small patch of woodland holds the UK’s highest number of unique species – including blushing snails, golden sail spiders and the he-and-she cabbage trees. But it is shrinking fast. Thanks to this partnership between St Helena, the RSPB and the UK Government, there is a chance to preserve it for future generations. This is another great example of the UK Overseas Territories tackling the challenges of climate change, especially ahead of the COP climate summit later this year.”

St Helena Chief Secretary, Susan O’Bey, said, “Cloud forests are under siege globally and ours is no exception. Cloud forests are safe havens for a vast range of creatures and plants and this is particularly true on St Helena. We are immensely proud of the work that has already been achieved to preserve this fragile but important habitat, and we are indebted to all our partners for the support that we have received over the past years.

This additional funding from the UK Government means that we will be able to continue with our conservation and restoration plans and for this we are exceedingly grateful. I would like to echo Jonathan’s comment about the amazing partnership that exists both locally and internationally in pursuit of this shared goal, it is both a testament to what has been achieved and a commitment to the work that is still to be done, this is collaboration at its very finest.”

 

 

Some of the endemic species who live in the cloud forest:

1.     Spiky yellow woodlouse – a woodlouse that glows in the dark under UV light, the only woodlouse on record to have this reaction.

2.     Golden sail spiders – a bright golden spider which has distinctively shaped abdomen like a 'sail' that helps it fly through the air.

3.     Blushing snail – there used to be at least 20 snail species on St Helena – now only the blushing snail remains. Its gorgeous luminescent shell ranges in colour from pale amber to golden brown.

4.     Black cabbage tree – a daisy that evolved into a tree – daisy-like flowers still burst into bloom at the ends of the branches in October and November.  

5.     She- and he- cabbage trees – there is the he-cabbage, so called because of its robust and leathery “masculine” foliage, and the she-cabbage’s which has a smooth foliage and pink petioles.

 

Photo - Spiky yellow woodlouse under UV light. Credit: St Helena National Trust, Amy Dutton

Last Updated: Thursday 5 August 2021

Tagged with: Topic: Conservation Topic: Wildlife