As far as you can go – Tree Fern Regeneration

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.

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.

As far as you can go – Fighting the invasives, protecting the endemics

Then the invasion began -on purpose or by accident, the humans brought with them new plants and animals to “colonise” the natural environment.  With little competition some of these plants have spread vigorously.  One of the most prolific, indeed it has been cited as a national flower, is the arum lily.  These beautifully formed green leaves with the lantern white flowers cluster in little damp patches up in the higher altitudes, but spread prolifically.  Two sorts of fuchsia – more commonly known to me as a garden plant, entangle themselves into every other type of plant on top of the Peaks.  To see a little burst of purple up here in the mist is charming and pretty, but symptomatic of an invasive species going rampant.

So back in the 1990s, the abandoned flax fields on the top of the mountains were declared a national park.  In little pockets in amongst the mass of huge spiny leaves, the endemic species were clinging on.  They were tucked away in the deepest of the guts, on steep slopes or maybe had clustered together for safety and kept other species out.  One or two of the larger tree species had examples that were just tall enough to stay above the height of the invasive weeds.  But they were growing older and becoming susceptible to disease.  They were often slow growing and no younger trees were able to get enough height above the more vigorous invasives to survive into adulthood.

A long term plan was put in place to restore the old flax fields to endemic plantations.  It had to be done carefully and methodically.  Just clearing the flax once was not enough – the other weeds and indeed the flax too would have a habit of coming back even more strongly.  And also some of the endemics were in a seriously endangered state – only a few specimens had been identified.

A pioneer in the efforts to log all the endemic species and first preserve then reintroduce them was George Benjamin.  George could be called a poacher turned gamekeeper; he worked in one of the mills processing the dreaded invasive flax, but after several career turns had become a conservation officer at the Department of Forestry, a place which I got to know well on my trips to St Helena.  He scoured the island looking for examples of the different endemic species, and with various pieces of support from the UK including Kew Gardens, learnt how to propagate plants and build up a nursery of saplings.  Rebecca had been working closely with George and others at the Department of Forestry (now part of a combined Agriculture and Natural Resources Department or ANRD) in an area called Scotland in the west of the island.  She took me over to their wonderful site.  I am used to government department buildings being stuffy concrete office blocks in the middle of town.  ANRD was nothing like this.  For one thing it was about 3 miles out of Jamestown up in the Green Heartland.  You came into the compound at the top of the hill and parked up next to a huge log cabin, which housed almost all the offices of the department.  At one end the chief and the Admin unit sat, then along one side you had the Forestry Department, Conservation (which was in fact a section under Forestry), Agriculture and at the far end, the Marine Resources Department which included fisheries.  On the front side there were a few extra rooms for staff, photocopying , a couple of laboratories and meeting room.  It had the slightly musty but country smell of a youth hostel.  Outside was a sizeable estate containing sample plots, green houses and sheds holding equipment.

Rebecca led me down to a small brick shed at the bottom of the site, and here I was introduced to her two counterparts from the Conservation Section of ANRD, Marje and Vince.  Vince had, like George, been a pioneer in the programme to restore the habitats on the Peaks and Marje was his assistant.  In the glasshouses and open plots behind the shed were plant after plant in small polythene containers.  There was the ebony, the he-cabbage, the she-cabbage, and the black cabbage.  And in the greatest quantity were the gumwoods.  Rebecca introduced me to these plants.  All but the gumwoods were being replanted up on the peaks; the gumwood preferred drier, more sheltered and slightly warmer altitudes and efforts were focused to create a forest in the east of the island.

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Seeing the nursery for the endemics

Capturing the Diversity – say hello to the little plants

Accompanying us that day was an expert from Oxford University and his colleague in Bryophytes.  These are those lower order plants like mosses, liverworts and algae.  Much ignored in conservation efforts, on a small island bryophytes can have more diversity and interest than the endemic higher order plants.  I’d dabbled a little in mapping these on St Helena.  You could not hope to map the extent of each species; no single person would ever think of spending their days meticulously recording these plants; by the time you did one pass through the whole situation might have changed anyway.  And why would you want to anyway?  But it was important once a family or species has been identified, to know a few sites where you can guarantee to find it again, a sort of living herbarium or wild botanical garden.  More like a safari for plants in fact.  So from a database of located samples I was able to make a map showing where key examples of families were found across St Helena.  But it was a confusing map as so many species and families exist you needed about 300 different symbols to pick them out.  But wandering round with this Bryophyte expert on Ascension, let me say super-enthusiast, it did give me a different perspective on how you see conservation.

Take for example the barracks up on Green Mountain.  To me this was a human construction on the natural environment, one which had been abandoned and neglected and was somewhat of an eyesore.  To our expert, it was a million and one microenvironments with hosts of plants colonising dry surfaces, moist crannies in the grouting, exploiting eroded bricks.  It took us over twenty minutes to prise him from a small section of wall.  I think my problem with the bryophyte experts, and some other botanists too, is that they find it difficult to generalise.  Every species, nay, every plant, has to be examined for its uniqueness.  One of the reasons I liked Andrew and Phil’s work was because it had a goal to give a comprehensive broad brush picture of the status of vegetation on the two islands. From that much more considered and prioritized conservation interventions could be delivered.  While there is a place for the basic science of enthusing about the range of species and types, the other angle is also needed.

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.