As far as you can go -The Millennium Forest

The area now known as the “Coastal Zone” was until recently referred to as the Crown Wastelands.  The environment close to the coast was the most fragile – salt laden winds precluded fast growing plants and there were hardly any trees in this area, just a few stunted examples cowering in any nook in the hillsides.  A series of delicate ecosystems found their niches in different places, and  I shall mention a few later.

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The Crown Wastelands

When people came to St Helena, though, they started to exploit the resources and did not see the consequences.  They wiped out the endemic plantations in the uplands but at least the new vegetation was healthy and productive.  But letting goats loose on the lowlands meant that they devastated so much of this area.  Rebecca had negotiated hard to establish a forest on some of this land where historically the gumwoods might have grown, but the goats had cleared all the other understory, causing devastating soil erosion in the east of the island in particular and the gumwoods must have declined as a result.

So thousands of seedlings carefully propagated over in the Scotland district had been brought over to the site in the east and planted out as naturally as possible.  It was called the Millennium Forest and when I visited there was an area close to the car park that was already starting to mature.  The trees were only shoulder height at best but they were healthy looking trees.  Beyond this area there were smaller plants and there was a continuous programme to extend the trees further into the wastelands.

It was an ambitious plan and had caused some criticism that it was doomed to failure.  But although embryonic, the evidence was there that a sustainable forest was being grown.  In amongst the more mature trees that had been in place for ten years, little saplings were struggling to establish… self seeded.

As far as you can go – Peak Dale and the Gumwoods

I’d sometimes potter around this area of St Paul’s.  There were a number of public roads linking the scattered homesteads together.  In amongst the woodlands and pasture lands were a various small open spaces, called plains.  Nowadays they were used as picnic sites and recreation areas for kids to run around in, but I could see they were possible places to corral livestock before bringing them down to Jamestown for the ships.

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Rosemary Plain – one of the many picnic sites

There was quite a contrast between the north west side of the island and the rest. The monsoon winds blew in from the south east and even at lower altitudes the land was battered by wetter, windier weather than the north west side.  Despite this there were some interesting niches over here.  Rebecca took me early on to one of the best of these called Peak Dale.  Tucked underneath High Peak and reached by a circuitous track was a tract of woodland.  It was the last stand of mature gumwood of any size.  Rebecca and I were chatting extensively about what St Helena needed in terms of GIS and she was teaching me all about the unique flora and fauna but when we reached the gumwood we just stopped and stared.  Rebecca could never get enough of these trees and I soon realised I was in love too.

The common gumwood is a slow growing tree with dense woody trunks and branches.  Battered by different winds, the branches curl and twist over the years and terminate at a delicate canopy of small leaves.  We were standing on the track in amongst them and they were sparsely scattered across the hillside.  I was enchanted by the delicate arrangement of leaf, bark and trunk set above the most incredible vista which looks down to the wastelands and out to the sea.  Then Rebecca spoilt the idyll.  She pointed out where there were gaps in the canopy and on the ground the desiccated trunks of gumwoods.  This ancient woodland was under stress; they were not regenerating themselves and the old trees were past their best.  So she had been vanguarding an effort to replant gumwoods. They were not doing it here at Peak Dale.  They were working on an area to the east of the island beyond the Green Heartland and right on the edge of the Intermediate Zone.

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