Saint Helena

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Overview

Construction of an airport & the development of a tourism industry in St Helena may have a profound effect on the environment & it's unique wildlife.

St Helena is a small island of 121 square kilometres 1,600 kilometres west of Angola in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.

It is one of 14 United Kingdom Overseas Territories and has a human population of just 4,500. It has a rich natural and cultural history, but has suffered economically in the last few decades, meaning  many 'Saints' have left the island to find work abroad.  

In November 2011 the UK government confirmed it would finance the building of an airport on St Helena to improve access and facilitate inward investment and the development of a tourism industry on the island. Construction of this airport is now now complete and the first commercial flight from South Africa landed in October 2017.

The airport footprint includes areas used by St Helena's only remaining endemic bird, the St Helena plover or 'wirebird'.

As part of the project, the RSPB, in partnership with the St Helena Government and Saint Helena National Trust have established mitigation areas for wirebirds to nest and feed in. The airport will also have impacts on endemic invertebrate species.

As a result of the airport going ahead, significant upgrades of St Helena’s infrastructure have taken place, including a new road to the airport, and an expansion of the island's electricity generating capacity through the provision of renewable energy projects including wind turbines and a solar farm. Hotel, housing and tourism projects are also proposed in the Development Plan for the island, and the first of these developments are starting to be consented.

Alongside our partner - the St Helena National Trust - we're working to ensure that the airport and inward investment projects do not have adverse impacts on St Helena's unique and endangered endemic species. Although the development of new economic opportunities on the island is sorely needed, it is imperative that these do not degrade or destroy the very things that tourists will come to the island to see – its unique species and habitats.

The first test of this approach is the now consented 'Wirebird Hills' hotel and golf course development at Broad Bottom. This development site contains one of the five most important breeding areas for wirebirds in the world. With the St Helena National Trust, we are working with the developer and their consultants to ensure that enough undisturbed and suitably managed habitat is retained in the development area to ensure that this site remains a stronghold for the Wirebird into the future, and that the development lives up to its name.

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Why is it worth fighting for?

Like many other isolated islands, St Helena's long separation from other landmasses meant it developed a unique flora and fauna, which remained intact until its discovery in the 16th Century.

Since then, introduced grazing animals (particularly goats), invasive plant species (eg gorse and flax) and mammalian predators (principally rats and cats) have decimated the natural flora and fauna to the extent that seven out of eight of the original endemic bird species are now extinct, in addition to numerous endemic invertebrates and plants. 

The latest confirmed extinction was the St Helena Olive tree, the last individual of which died in 2004. St Helena's original vegetation and ecosystems to a large extent do not exist anymore, having been cleared by man, grazed out of existence or overcome by invasive plants. Remnants do cling on though and are now starting to be restored.

The St Helena plover, or wirebird, is the only surviving species of the eight unique types of bird species which were found on the island when man arrived. In the early 2000's its population suffered steep declines (down 40 per cent), leading to a situation in 2004 where only 235 individuals remained in the world, all on this small speck in the middle of the South Atlantic.

Following concerted action by the RSPB and St Helena National Trust, supported by the UK and St Helena Governments, the population has now recovered well. The species is still classified as critically endangered however, and we need to ensure its breeding areas are protected from inappropriate development, in tandem with measures to manage its preferred habitats properly and protect it eggs and chicks from predators. We also need to ensure that road casualties on the newly improved roads around the airport to not threaten the population’s recovery.

St Helena plover (wirebird) at nest

Take action for local wildlife

A view of the loch at Abernethy

You might not realise it, but you have the power to influence local decisions to protect the wildlife around you. We’ve produced a Wildlife Action Pack full of information to help you make a difference.

Fairy Glen RSPB reserve. Foliage: young leaves back-lit, glow a vivid green. The Black Isle, Ross-shire, near Rosemarkie, Scotland

Our position

We recognize the need for the development of St Helena's economy, however, this needs to be achieved while safeguarding the island's unique and endangered species.

The wirebird nests on the ground and needs relatively flat areas in which to nest and raise its chicks. Flat land on St Helena is at a premium though, so areas for development are likely to coincide with where the birds need to nest and feed. A careful balance therefore needs to be struck between needed development and retention of space for nature.

We have already worked constructively with the UK and St Helena governments to ensure mitigation areas were provided for wirebirds to replace those breeding areas lost through the construction of the airport. We are happy that much of the work to provide mitigation and compensatory habitat in the Environmental Management Plan for the project have now been completed. We will also work to ensure the mitigation areas receive long-term management to retain their value for wirebirds.

We have also been active in commenting on a suite of plans which will guide St Helena's future, including the Land Development Control Plan, Sustainable Development Plan and Environmental Management Plan. We will aim to work with the St Helena National Trust and St Helena Government to ensure that implementation of these documents leads to sustainable development of the island and the retention and enhancement of its biodiversity.

St Helena Government's vision for the island is that it develops as an eco-tourism exemplar. However, there is a grave risk that in the rush for inward investment, there will be a temptation to cut corners with proper due diligence of development proposals and with avoidance and mitigation measures needed to retain and enhance endangered species. We will therefore be pressing the government to ensure that development proposals are objectively impact assessed and that the precautionary principle is applied where necessary.

We will also aim to work constructively with developers (such as SHELCO at the Wirebird Hills hotel and golf development) to identify how development can go ahead whilst retaining and enhancing populations of endemic species.

We are pleased the St Helena Government has proposed a large network of National Conservation Areas, which include those sites important for nesting wirebirds. We will be encouraging the government to draft, consult on and implement management plans for these sites as soon as possible, with particular emphasis on those sites which may be affected by development.

Timeline

  • October 2017
    After significant delays to the start of commercial flights caused by previously unknown wind shear issues, the first passenger plane from South Africa lands at St Helena Airport. This opens up a new era in St Helena’s timeline, allowing medical evacuations and increasing accessibility of the island to Saints and tourists alike.
  • May 2015
    BirdLife International adopt six new Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs) for St Helena. These sites form part of the network of more than 12,000 IBAs around the world, which are the most important places for the conservation of birds. Much of the new IBAs are covered by St Helena’s National Conservation Area network.
  • March 2015
    Final blasting at the airport site is completed. The runway and airport buildings are due to be completed in September, with official opening due in mid 2016. Work on the Landscape and Ecology Mitigation Programme continues, with the propagation and planting of native flora.
  • February 2015
    RSPB provide comments on draft development and management plans for St Helena’s new National Conservation Areas. Ensuring development does not impact on these sites and managing them effectively for nature conservation, public access and where appropriate, agriculture, is a key step in their long-term conservation.
  • January 2014
    The Landscape and Ecology Mitigation Programme, a key element of the mitigation for the airport construction starts, two years late. RSPB & SHNT welcome its initiation, but are keen to ensure it makes up for lost time and regret that some mitigation actions to limit damage to endemic invertebrate populations are now too late.
  • November 2013
    St Helena government proposes an amendment to the airport plan to make a permanent wharf at Rupert’s Bay. Although the environmental impacts are likely to be modest, this is a significant step forward as the application includes a comprehensive EIA and a proper formal public consultation takes place – an approach we hope will become standard practice.
  • October 2013
    An RSPB Freedom of Information request to DFiD, asking for various environmental documents associated with the airport construction is refused due to 'reasons of international relations'. This is confirmed on appeal. Although we are disappointed by DFiD's approach on access to information, we continue to press for more open decision-making and consultation on airport construction.
  • May 2013
    St Helena Government release a draft of a new Environmental Protection Ordinance. This new legislation will significantly update and expand on St Helena's existing environmental legislation. RSPB & SHNT welcome the draft and look forward to working with the government to getting it adopted.
  • July 2013
    St Helena government approve a variation to the planning permission for the airport, allowing construction of an open-channel instead of a culvert to drain the Dry Gut valley, which is being filled in to accommodate the airport runway. No public consultation is carried out to test the validity of the impact assessment undertaken for this major engineering works, which affects an area important for endemic lichens and invertebrates.
  • June 2013
    The St Helena Government adopts its new 'Land Development Control Ordinance'. This legislation updates the rules controlling development on the island, fully integrating environmental impact assessment within the process and requiring government officials to abide by development plans. This further strengthens St Helena's planning legislation, although a requirement for Strategic Environmental Assessment of government plans is still absent.
  • March 2013
    The RSPB/FIELD report 'An Assessment of Environmental Protection Frameworks in the UK Overseas Territories' rates St Helena's species protection laws as 'moderate' sites protection as 'weak', development control as 'strong' and openness/transparency 'moderate'.
  • October 2012
    The Environmental Management Directorate adopts its finalised Strategic Plan for its work up to 2015.
  • August 2012
    The Environmental Management Directorate of the St Helena Government consults on its Strategic Plan for the effective management of the island's environment until 2015. RSPB and SHNT provide comments welcoming the draft plan and highlighting the role that civil society in St Helena can usefully play in implementing it.
  • May 2012
    St Helena Government consult on a planning application from SHELCO for a hotel and golf course development at Broad Bottom, a key breeding area for wirebird. Although not in principle against the development, the RSPB and the SHNT object on grounds of a lack of detail in relation to mitigation and compensation measures for wirebirds. The government gives consent for the project, with the bare minimum of planning conditions attached, and details of mitigation not in place. We continue to work constructively with the developer and their consultants to try to ensure that the finalised proposals produce the best result for breeding Wirebirds possible.
  • February 2012
    The RSPB comments on St Helena's Sustainable Development Plan which will guide how the island will develop its economy, government, social policies and environmental management until 2015. The draft plan has no overarching environmental objective and only one objective out of thirty relates to management of the natural and built heritage. The final version puts 'effective management of the environment' as a key objective and integrates an environmental management plan into the implementing documents of the government.
  • November 2011 - January 2012
    The RSPB comments on the draft St Helena Land Development Control Plan, suggesting ways in which the policies and proposals can be improved to ensure safeguard of St Helena's unique environment. Natural Heritage policies are enhanced in the final draft and the proposed network of National Conservation Areas should provide a good basis for protection of St Helena’s endemic species into the future.
  • November 2011
    The UK Government announces it will fund the proposed airport development. The airport is due to be completed and opened by 2015.
  • July 2009
    RSPB respond to a consultation on the most appropriate option to improve access to St Helena. We state that the full environmental impacts of the different options available be assessed and taken into account in any decision, and any decision needs to be accompanied by an over-haul of the economic and development plans for the island.
  • 2008
    The RSPB and St Helena National Trust (SHNT) work with the UK government and St Helena government to ensure adequate mitigation measures are in put in place to ensure wirebirds affected by the proposed airport development are in place before any works occur on site.

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Information on St Helena - Britain's second oldest territory, and the most isolated inhabited island in the world. PDF, 591Kb.

Spotlight on St Helena