Return to Cayman – The Environmental Warriors of the OTs

Having worked in several overseas territories, predominantly on environmental projects, I had got to know an amazing group of enthusiastic scientists who valued the special nature of the small islands they conserved.  A group called the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum had been established which brought these specialists together at a conference every couple of years to talk about their successes, their trials and tribulations.  As well as people from the OTs themselves, many of the agencies that helped them out were involved too.  This included some big players that are well known in the UK, like the Durrell Foundation, the Royal Society for Protection of Birds and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.  When I had been in the BVI,  I was give the chance to go with a large delegation to one of these conferences in Bermuda.  Flying via New York, we arrived on the island in the middle of the night. It being March, I was amazed what a different climate it was from Tortola – most of the time it was dull and misty, and fairly chilly!  Despite this there were plenty of coral reefs and palm trees around and I was confused by the mix of tropical and temperate signals I was getting.

As well as the conference, the field trips around Bermuda were fantastic, especially to Nonsuch Island.  Bermuda is one of the most urbanised of the OTs, and predominantly expensive properties which gave it the air of looking like Surrey but with fringing reef.  Surrey with the fringe on top, as it were.


taken by UKOTCF , me in green t shirt

Several years later, with me back in the UK, I was approached by members of the forum to present at another of these conferences in Grand Cayman.  It was to be about the Ascension Island work and I was pleased to have a place to talk about the stuff Edsel and I had done.  Moreover, I was delighted to be able to meet up with so many familiar friends from around the OTs and it would be fantastic to get another chance to explore Grand Cayman properly after the curtailed trip the previous year.

Capturing the Diversity – Mapping the Vegetation

Kew had their own GIS section (whose members were also keen to travel to these amazing islands) so I never got a huge amount of work from these visits, but given I had helped Stedson over the years with his logging of plants, I was asked to come back to Ascension  on my own purely to look at the plant issues.   Phil had been pulled in to help Andrew with the detailed surveys.  They carved up both St Helena and Ascension Island into square blocks, and then did a comprehensive species list, not just looking for endemics but also natives and invasives, every type of high plant.  They also had to judge the abundance of each species.  I travelled out just for a week to help out on all the plant issues, and Andrew and Phil were beavering away with their surveys while I was there.  They absolutely loved it although the field work was exhausting.  They would spend several hours a day out surveying a square, not so bad if it were close to a road, but involving a long trek if it was not.  Up on Green Mountain where the vegetation was much thicker, they had subdivided the squares, and exploring each study area was made much more difficult by the steepness of slopes, wet slimy ground, and thick undergrowth to get through.  But they were out in the fresh air, doing what they loved.  And they had taken residence up at one of the cottages on Green Mountain, and they cherished the seclusion and at-oneness with nature that they got from there.


Mountain top cottage

I joined them once for one of their easier days.  They had not completed much of the north east of the island.  I had never visited this quadrant before.  Much of it is covered by a firing range still used to this day by the military and you have to check in with them to make sure it is safe to enter, and just be careful not to tread on any stray ordinance which has been left behind.  We accessed the range by driving down the road at the back of Two Boats towards NE Bay.

Close to the flagpoles which would carry the warning flags if firing was scheduled, we gathered our kit up from the back of the Land Rover and started to tromp in.  The grid square was pretty much on the road and in its centre was a low lying area surrounded by conical hills of various sizes.  The western side was connected to an area which has seen the most recent volcanic activity, less than 700 years back.  These cones, in geological terms, are fresh, and full of loosely consolidated pieces of ash and small nuggets of lava. Their conical shape is so uniform as the material sorts itself to the maximum angle that the gravel can stay together, any steeper and pieces naturally roll down till equilibrium is re-established.  One of the craters, though, has been subjected to other factors and one side of the slope has collapsed.  It has been given the name Broken Tooth given the sharp jagged edges where the collapse took place.  In between the cones are the a series of lava flows, but they are not as black and angular (or difficult to traverse) as the ones around the coast or on the large north western coastal plain.  Wash from Green Mountain behind has filled up some of the gaps with a yellowish sandy soil, which is  more easy to walk through, but there are still lots of loose stones and hard angular rocks to be careful of when you hike.

I was surprised just how much vegetation was in the grid square.  Again, probably because of Green Mountain behind, seeds have been carried down in the sediment and given the landscape a much richer flora than similar geological areas further away from the mountain.  There were plenty of Mexican Thorn here but it was not dominant.  Casuarina trees were prevalent and seemed adept at gaining a foothold on the scoria cones.  Trees were one thing, but the whole area was carpeted in herbaceous and annual plants, so many little flowers and seeds, once gaining a foothold in the rubble, forever more established.  Andrew and Phil recorded each species and where necessary, guessed the abundance.  There were still not that many species; maybe twenty frequently occurring and a few other specials.  They both rolled their eyes when they remembered the long lists they had to compile up in the mountain tops.

It was a real pleasure to explore this part of the island with them, but unbeknownst to me , things were going wrong underfoot.  I had been wearing my heavy duty boots, with steel caps and base plates.  They were great clunking things but surprisingly comfortable from the inside.  The terrain in Ascension is unforgiving though, and although Broken Tooth was mild in comparison with the big lava flows, I managed to rip the sole from the upper.  The front became completely detached, and I gingerly flopped back to the Land Rover.  I asked around if anyone had any strong glue.  Some of the Conservation staff sucked through their teeth, but Stedson came up trumps with Araldite.  I pasted the gloopy mix and put it in a vice in his workshop.  Ten minutes later I had a single shoe again, and continue to wear it to this day.

Capturing Diversity – The Kew Connection

Stedson always grumbled that the other conservation programmes on the island got a lot more attention and resources – whether it be counting turtles or monitoring the birds.  But I did see over the course of over 6 years how the plants issues were taken more seriously.  Stedson himself got more funds for propagating species and Kew Gardens were hugely helpful in maintaining herbarium specimens, ensuring if things went awry on Ascension itself there was a seed bank and material somewhere else from which to rebuild a population.  There was also a large project to look at invasive species in more detail.  Part of this programme was to conduct the first detailed plant survey on both St Helena and Ascension Island.  I’d had plenty of time to talk to one of the team, Andrew, a former teacher in St Helena who walked regularly – I’d been on a walk across to the Barn with him on St Helena as well as having travelled on the RMS on the same voyages.  His colleague, Phil Lambdon, I had come across on a set of visits I had done to Kew Gardens.  Dating back to the early 2000’s and my time in BVI, I had come across a fantastic champion of plants in the overseas territories called Colin Clubbe.   Colin was out in BVI building up relationships with the National Parks Trust and Conservation and Fisheries Department where I worked, and we had a lot of chats about potential ways that his taxonomy work and species data could be mapped.  As often happened, if another Brit trundled across my office I would try and do a bit of socialising with them and I also tagged along on a couple of his walks in the bush.  We ended up crossing paths several times, at conferences in Bermuda and Cayman, on work in Montserrat and then in Ascension and St Helena.  So much so, now being based back in South East England, I made it a point to try and get over to Kew Gardens at least once a year to have a catch-up with him.  Colin was such a great host, and I had several chats with an American guy, Martin Hamilton, who was trying to bring some of the territories up to speed on how to log records of species.  He had a database that could record locations of key endemic species, show where invasives were and monitor patches of forest.

It was a great privilege to see behind the scenes at Kew.  Colin’s office was on the Green near the main entrance to Kew Gardens, and the offices connected to one of the most fantastic Victorian buildings I have ever had the pleasure of being inside.  The Herbarium was established to store plant specimens, leaves, twigs, flowers and seeds, of everything the collectors would bring back.    Plant material was placed in newspapers, usually from the country of origin, a Combretum in a Daily Nation from Kenya,  a bamboo orchid from Malaysia in a  New Strait Times, a bromeliad from Jamaica in a Daily Gleaner – and squeezed into travelling cases to preserve the material. By careful drying, laying out and storage, these specimens could travel thousands of miles and still be used as keys by specialists back at Kew.  Modern methods such as digital photos , seed banks and genomes are doing so much to continue this tradition, but there was something so tangible about these historical documents in the room.  Also olfactible – you could smell the specimens.

And the room itself was impressive – just trust the Victorians to produce a practical space with artistry thrown in.  It was made of iron to make it fire resistant, painted cream and blood red, with slim iron columns supporting a metal mezzanine above, and every nook and cranny filled with ceiling high shelving stuffed with these wooden storage bundles. I remember Colin pulling out a bundle for me and he opened up a card.  There, neatly laid out , was the flattened shape of a stem and flower, and decorative cursive writing documented the key features and location of the find.  And the collector was also named in the same handwriting – Charles Darwin.

He also took me round a quadrangle of offices which included the remarkable library.  In amongst the usual journals and tomes, there were fantastic albums full of stunning paintings of flora; scientifically accurate but artistically sublime.

Over the few years I went to discuss issues with Colin and Martin, a new building was erected.  Plant collections had fallen out of favour once, but now again were being seen as vital storage locations as the native habitats of these plants came under more and more pressure.  And as well as Colin and Martin, I met plenty of dedicated scientists who were looking in detail at different plant species and helping botanists around the world, record, monitor, treasure and conserve their biodiversity. Phil Lambdon was one of these botanists.

Capturing the Diversity – The Green Oasis

High in the clouds above the rest of Ascension island is a lush oasis of vegetation.  From the west, Green Mountain looks like a sharply pointed peak, but in fact it is a heavily eroded ridge orientated west to east, with several fatter spurs coming out especially on its southern side.  It is battered by every type of weather, but that plays to its inhabitants advantage.  For Green Mountain’s topography  produces so many different elevations, aspects and niches that everything can thrive up there in its proper place.   There was one problem with this, and that was to get plant seeds and spores there in the first place for them to experiment, evolve and thrive.  Being so far from any other land made it so difficult for plants to colonise.

It is difficult to imagine what Green Mountain looked like 500 years ago.  Only a small number of higher plant species are known to have existed there. Most of these are the ferns, whose spores could have travelled hundreds of miles on the wind.  The spurge too might have reached by wind perchance, or more likely from being stuck in the gullet or foot of a migratory bird.  But not much else.  The only other plants which seemed to find their niches were the lower ones, called bryophytes.  Algae and moss, liverworts as well, had set up their stalls on rock faces and in crevasses and maybe in amongst the rocks themselves. Maybe those people searching for life on Mars could learn a few hiding places by searching the lava flows of Ascension Island.


The natural vegetation types

So why is Green Mountain and the surrounding area coated in grasses, shrubs and trees?  Quite simply, it was a huge experiment.  Various settlers and scientists, the most famous being Joseph Dalton Hooker of Kew Gardens,  used the slopes to see how you might be able to colonise a pristine environment with species from other places.  Seeds of all types, shapes, sizes and from a variety of climates were brought, and the mountainside was literally planted up.  Some were a complete failure, others you have to search hard for examples, like coffee beans or tea plants, but some relished the lack of competition and went rampant.

It was part experiment, but also was a way of trying to humanize the island.  As one of the first visitors to the island, the explorer Dampier, discovered, if you wanted to live on the island long term, you needed to get food, water and shelter.  The lack of vegetation made a lot of that very difficult – and so planting up timber forests not only supplied you with building materials, but help capture moisture, stabilise slopes and temper the climate.


Lush Green Mountain Vegetation

So in came pine trees, eucalyptus, the casuarina tree.  Also came fruiting shrubs like raspberries, guava, bananas.  The guava in particular loved the climate and has spread far and wide over the south eastern portion of the island.  In theory they could be sizeable shrubs, but the winds of the south eastern corner of the island often stunt their growth down to barely a few inches off the surface of the rocks.   Look closely though, and you might find specimens that are several metres long, but their trunks and branches are flattened against the ground.


Horizontal Tree

Flax, bamboo and other grasses have gone unbridled on some slopes.  Ginger too has expanded, it knots itself in amongst other vegetation and is a devil to remove.


Flax and other plants on the roof of the island