Diana’s Peaks perch higher than most of the island, but so much of the inhabited area is on a high plateau studded with more ridges and pointed or flat hilltops. To the south west of the national park runs a particularly large ridge. Remnants of the endemic species have managed to cling on to various clefts along this route. A road precariously runs along the ridge top to the most remote of St Helena’s settlements, Blue Hill. Rebecca took me along here to see more work to restore the natural vegetation at a spot called High Peak. A single triangular mountain rises up to an altitude barely 30m less than Diana’s Peak itself. But it is both treacherously steep and exposed to the Atlantic gales from every direction. Clearing flax here has become an exercise in mountaineering. Conservationists had to abseil off the ridge edge, and still attached to their safety ropes attempt to cut out the flax tenaciously clinging on to any piece of soil it could find. The waste was dropped to be picked up later by teams working in the safer environment of a pathway at the foot of the slope.
The cliff edges and dells of High Peak provided niches that had examples of some of the rarest endemics on the island including a curious creature called the Yellow Spiny Woodlouse. It also contained the largest stand of black cabbage woodland still extant. Another peculiar plant which existed here was a curious hybrid. There was a very rare endemic plant called the ebony, but there appeared to have been hybridization with the more common redwood tree producing a plant christened rebony.
Rebony and other endemics tucked into the hillside
Working out the clearance plan
The mix of plants
The endemic plants being reintroduced here at one time were once extensive over the higher altitudes, but other land uses now preclude any attempts to do widespread planting. Despite them not being native, the transformed nature of the areas at the fringes of the national park were to me an attractive landscape, maybe as it had echoes of the south west of England or west Wales. The narrow roads were situated down in shallow trenches, I suppose to give a little shelter to people travelling along them. The grassy banks either side were lush (although of course covered in invasives!) and either side lined with rolling pastures for sheep and cattle. Trees lined some of the roads again to give shelter and shade, and were dotted around the fields to give a parkland effect, but there are also substantial forest plantations at this elevation. Houses were generally of two types here – either they were grand Georgian structures where the well to do once lived, or they were curious elongated single storey farmsteads crouching down against the elements. I found out there was a habit of building rooms in a long line as resources permitted but for a time there was no inside connecting hallway – you had to go out and back in to get from, say, the bedroom to the kitchen.
Scattered in amongst this were a couple of examples of the weirdest and most wonderful plants on the slopes, the St Helena Tree Fern, but then we turned a corner and were in amongst one of the oldest remaining stands of that plant. Everywhere I looked these dark brown trunks with wispy fronds covered the hillside. While I did not find the flax an unpleasant ground cover, there was a magic of the tree fern forest, and I could but imagine what the whole area looked like when it was a mixture of these ferns and the black cabbage trees. On a later walk around with Rebecca I got in amongst the tree fern forests and you were able to touch the trunks themselves. While they were thick and several metres tall, they were incredibly fragile. Incised with long deep channels, the water easily got inside the trunks and you could see plenty of evidence of rotting. If you touched the surface you realised it was a soft sponge and all too easily damaged or snapped off. In the harsh winds up here on the peaks there were plenty of uprooted ferns, but they continued to grow at the horizontal, or were gradually rotting away into the ground to feed the next generation. Most tree ferns I have seen have an even canopy either side of the trunk but these St Helena ferns tended to bend over one side, either due to their genetics of the prevailing winds.
Ferns on top of thepeaks
A compartment of replanted tree ferns
ferns behind the invasives
Flax cleared areas with regenerating tree ferns
Bringing up the new plants from the nursery
Rebecca explaining about the tree ferns
Tree ferns capturing the cloud mist
Ferns in the mist
Rebecca enthused about the environment created in amongst these plants. It was far more biodiverse than the flax with more layers and niche habitats for all the lower plants, the mosses, ordinary ferns and liverworts to thrive in, as well as the fungi. Then there were all the insects, the spiders and the birds, and the various other animals that have found their way on to St Helena and refuge in amongst the ferns. All these niches in themselves have produced a wide variety of species within these orders which you may not only not find anywhere else than St Helena, but even within St Helena there are particular areas where species have specialized.
As well as the mature stands of tree ferns, I was shown where there were five, four , three year old plantations on the reclaimed flax parcels. Each group of parcels had names related to the little valleys they were in, the peaks and tracks that were named in past centuries, or with reference to a significant St Helenian, and then each individual parcel was numbered. So you might have an area called Stitch’s Ridge II. Rebecca wanted to visualise the progress being made on the clearance of the invasives, planting programmes and monitoring of the health of the plants. So I spent many an hour up at the ANRD log cabin or on the large round table in the National Trust Office pulling together the map of the parcels, building a database to allow all this information to be collated, and running the summaries and programmes to allow the data to be charted or mapped in the GIS. It was a tough ask for three weeks, but very interesting work. Although the people conducting the conservation on island were used to maps, they had not see how the power of GIS could unlock so many more possibilities of analyzing and visualising the patterns on the ground of endemic regrowth.
Vince arranged that I should go up and see the work being conducted on the peaks. This entailed the commissioning of teams to clear the flax followed by others who went in to weed or plant the propagated specimens. Marj and I hopped in a Land Rover and Vince drove us back towards my house, but we stopped on the roadside where a track steeply rose into the flax. Clouds whisked around a few hundred feet both above us and in the valleys below, which gave the peaks a claustrophobic air. Drizzle penetrated every part of me and the ground was sodden. But the walk up the track intrigued me. The flax might be invasive but it had covered the ground in a rich vegetative cover over 3m high in places. Vince pointed out that it was not a complete monoculture and started to teach me about the other invasive weeds which had come along with it; not just the fuchsias and the arum lilies. Also he found stands of more endemic plants. One of my favourites was the Large Jellico. Reminding me somewhat of the hogweeds in the UK, these grow large cylindrical fluorescent green stems then sprout horizontal leaves, sometimes with small white flowers on the top. There were not many stands of them but where they grew they could be dominant. There were delicate little lobelias, another St Helena endemic, an ephemeral annual plant that quickly colonises areas where the flax had been cleared or any other sunny niche it could find.
Vince right on the peak
Walking the ridge
Marj and Vince
The flax covering the peaks
Lobelia in amongst others
Vince pointed out an area of recently cleared flax, a parcel of land of less than a hectare had been cut, the dead flax leaves were still there awaiting removal. Vince explained how they had to be careful of how and when they cleared the land. If it was not carefully managed a lot of invasive weeds would quickly come back in. But Rebecca had also said they had had some surprises in cleared land. Along with the endemic annuals and herbaceous plants whose seeds and tubers finally got a chance to grow into plants in the new light, a few seedling of trees had emerged. Once detected on the regular monitoring visits they were marked and fiercely guarded against being shaded out by faster growing invasives.
I got to see examples of the black cabbage, he cabbage and she cabbage. It took me a few visits to sort them out but all three had their aspects of beauty. The black cabbage is a gorgeous tree and many of the specimens hung out from the slope over the tracks we were walking on as if showing off to anyone who would give them a glance. A dense heavily lined trunk was topped by branches bending this way and that to an even and surprisingly neat canopy of clusters of waxy leaves that resembled a fully open cabbage. Funnily enough the bunch of white flowers which would be atop the leaf layer looked suspiciously like a small cauliflower. The He and She cabbage are completely different sorts of plant, a narrow stem branching out into large leaves – could almost be mistaken for a herbaceous plant. The she cabbage in particular is a beautiful mix of dark red stems with pointed luminous green leaves. It has the ability to warm and cheer you even on the wettest greyest day on the Peaks.
This ridge was proving to be a marker for nesting success. Over the last few years, there seemed to have been a expansion of nesting from the Letterbox area itself up this slope We recorded the data and moved on. Stedson started to get more interested and wanted to show me a little gut in the ridge. Running steeply downhill, the gut cut a gully only a few feet deep, and at first sight was scouring away at the volcanic rubble here, but through a series of terraced steps some of the smaller washed material had been trapped. This thin grey gritty soil had become the habitat for tiny plants, more or less the only greenery around this area. This was a type of Euphorbia, or spurge, endemic to Ascension Island. Stedson had been instrumental in both identifying it and building up its population. He took out some polythene bags and collected the tiny seeds. As well as a small number of very small natural populations over this part of the island, he was trying to find where to introduce them elsewhere. Probably the only native which ever managed to colonise the dry lowlands of Ascension where there was hardly any soil or water and oodles of scorching sunlight and drying winds, this was a tough little plant. Other more widely spread spurges do exist on Ascension Island, but this one has a gorgeous reddy stem, with the little bulbous leaves, storing away all that precious water it needs to survive within a thick plastic like skin. And the tiny flowers are so pretty with their little white heads. But all on a minute scale and unless there was a large carpet colony of them, most people would never even notice they were there.
The Ascension Spurge – logging the location
The hostile environment in which spurge can spread
Stedson collecting spurge seeds
Stedson was different. He had an eye for spotting individual plants in amongst others or the empty terrain like here, and he had built up his own knowledge of their environmental niches, so much so he could more or less predict where you might find one of his precious endemics. I remember a tour he took around one of the uppermost paths on Green Mountain, Elliot’s. While we were happy to see the mix of vegetation at different stages of the trail, he could spot the tiny collections of endemic ferns in a rockface or on a ledge.