Capturing the Diversity – Stedson’s Kingdom

Debate rages amongst conservationists about how much you should do to rebalance the amount of native species with those which have been introduced.  I don’t think anyone would like Green Mountain’s vegetation razed to the ground and replaced with a few fern plants.  The trails and recreational areas up there are too valuable to everyone as a green lung on an inhospitable tropical island. In 2005 Green Mountain was declared Ascension Island’s National Park and Stedson has been at the forefront of efforts both to increase the visitor experience, and restore the old endemic species up there.

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The one and only Stedson

Stedson gave Edsel and me a tour of Green Mountain on our first trip.  There is a single track tarmac road up there, mostly as the Administrator’s residency is perched near the National Park centre.  The road rises up steeply from Two Boats, running as best it can along a ridge.  But that ridge is far too steep to take in one run and instead you navigate through a series of tortuous hairpins.  You ride through a series of climatic zones in a matter of minutes, from the Mexican Thorn Trees, the yellowboys, lovely yellow flowers which carpet the slopes, then the eucalyptus forest and finally up to the cloud forest.  The bends in the road get tighter and tighter but both Stedson and Ray pride themselves on being able to get round every one without having to reverse once.  On one particular bend near the top, the margin for error is barely a hair’s width but Stedson in particular has been up there so many times, he is a master.

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The road to Green Mountain – in the Eucalyptus layer

The public car park is a moist dark patch under a little rock face, but with the key to the gate, the Conservation staff would drive a little further up into the courtyard of the Red Lion.  This building has the look of a grand pub, it has the location that a pub would envy, overlooking the west of the island, and it certainly has a pub’s name, but it was never a pub.  A farm was established here in the 1800’s and the Red Lion was where the farm workers lived.

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The “Red Lion”

There is still a lot of the farm infrastructure up here, and above the “pub” and a lawn now used as a picnic site are a whole load of allotments that anyone from the island can apply to cultivate.  You can continue the drive up the mountain a little further, through an impressive tunnel in the rock, past a couple more cottages and the old barracks used by the marines that were stationed on the island for a time.  On the right are a set of old water catchments, more of them later, and then a grassy slope past some flax to the end of the track.  First time Edsel and I came up here with Stedson, the cloud had been down over Green Mountain for days, and the track was a quagmire of thick red clay. I never knew the soil could get so deep on Ascension Island. But with the four wheel drive of the Land Rover and a steady pair of hands on Stedson, we slid and slurped our way to solid ground again.

At this final gate was an area that Stedson had been working hard on.  Almost single handedly he had cleared the invasive vegetation away and was planting endemic ferns that he had cultivated in polytunnels back at the Red Lion.  Over the course of several years I worked with Stedson to help him document his plant specimens out in the field. He was an instinctive kind of scientist and documentation or scientific rigour were never his strong points.  But to nurture a set of plants from seeds to adults in the wild, or to identify new plants out in the field, he was unparalleled.  His achievements were first noted when in 1982 he rediscovered a plant on his native St Helena that had been thought to be extinct, the bastard gumwood.  He had an almost folksy connection with nature, which sometimes might drive the visiting scientists potty as they tried to pin down their objectives, method and findings, but for most he was highly respected, and indeed loved, member of the conservation effort in the South Atlantic region.  I spent a day working up there with him one time when I was either waiting for the RMS to St Helena or the flight home; I have done voluntary  conservation work for the Medway Towns Conservation Volunteers and the Loose Valley back home, so getting stuck in to clearing or planting was no big deal.   I helped him clear a patch and he took me round the ferns being planted – a mixture of species.  He wanted to try and recreate the “carpet of ferns” that some early visitors to Ascension had described.  It was difficult work; the undergrowth up here grew back fast and could smother the tender ferns.  The rats, rabbits and insects could get in and in the moist climate even pathogens could not be ruled out.  But gradually the patches of endemic plants were growing.

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