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  • Letter from the South Atlantic, 16th November 2014

    Posted on November 20, 2014

    Here is Tim Butler’s latest update from St Helena. He’s been busy: from developing the role of the St Helena National Trust in conserving the island’s built heritage to exploring the idea of a money-making arm of the charity; from finding an appropriate resting place for skeletons and bones disturbed during the building of the new airport to awaiting the arrival of the RMS St Helena (with fresh peaches and nectarines!) … It all sounds – and looks – wonderful!

    Molly’s Flat, Cambrian House
    Upper Jamestown, St Helena
    16 November 2014

    Dear all,

    I’m writing this on a Sunday afternoon.  A rather cool afternoon.  But so was the morning and that was a blessing because I had joined six other people on a fairly energetic walk down to one of the bays on the island.  I say ‘walk’.  ‘Scramble’ would be more accurate – much of which was ‘a bit gritty’ as our guide said.  That is St Helenian understatement for ‘mostly scree which is likely to slip from under you at any time’.  The views, though, were spectacular, both of the rocky valley, with its innumerable shades of grey and brown and of the jade coloured sea frothing against the rocks when we got down to the cove.

    Our guide was David from St Helena National Trust, or ‘Bugman’ as he has dubbed himself – the first time I have come across a naturalist who has decided to go in for branding in a serious way.  His project is called (and this is proudly displayed on the side of his Land Rover) ‘Bugs on the Brink’.  He is collating and recording information on the endemic invertebrates on St Helena, and feeding this into the ‘red list’ of endangered species which is being compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

    ‘Endemic’, as I have now learnt, in this context means ‘has lived here for all time and is found only on St Helena’.  It is distinct from ‘indigenous’ or ‘native’ which means ‘‘has lived here for all time but is found in other places, too’.  So anything which is endemic is by definition indigenous, but not vice versa.  And then there is ‘alien’ or ‘naturalised’, which means introduced by humans, and seems almost always to be coupled with ‘invasive’, meaning spreading like wildfire and crowding everything else out.  Which is one of the big problems for St Helena’s flora and fauna.

    Because of its isolation, even two hundred years ago the island had many endemics: trees, plants, birds and invertebrates.  But right from when it was first discovered – three hundred year before that – people have introduced other species.  The early Portuguese sailors (who kept the existence of the island a secret from other nations for over 80 years) left goats and pigs on the island to breed, and provide food for when the sailors next called.  A good plan, except that, in the centuries which followed, the goats did a jolly good job of breeding, and of overgrazing some of the fragile habitats.  As I mentioned in my last note, flax plants – introduced from New Zealand – have completely taken over huge swathes of land and are crowding out everything else.  Unconstrained felling of the native trees, in the seventeenth century and subsequently, not only means that the trees themselves are now rare, or extinct in the wild, but has also led to serious soil erosion.  So where the early settlers found lush forest there are now big expanses of bare rock.  Which, in turn, has deprived other rare plants, birds and insects of their habitat.

    St HelenaMuch of the focus of Saint Helena National Trust, since it was founded in 2002, has been on trying to reverse this.  The Trust has taken on stewardship of the Millennium Community Forest, which is seeking to re-establish endemic trees, particularly gumwoods.  St Helenians and visitors alike are encouraged to pay £10 to have a tree planted, and so far 10,000 trees have been.  The photo above shows part of the forest, with the airport (under construction) in the far distance.  As well as gumwoods there is work going on to re-establish the delightfully named ‘he-cabbage’, ‘she-cabbage’ and ‘black cabbage’ trees.  These are so-called not because they have any genetic link to cabbages (indeed, I’m not sure they are all particularly closely linked to each other) but because they look like giant loose-leaved cabbages growing on the end of slender two- to three-metre trunks.

    At one time there were six species of bird endemic to St Helena.  Of those, five are now extinct, leaving just the St Helena wirebird, which is a type of plover and is the national bird of the island.  It is not much bigger than a sparrow, a pleasing mixture of brown, grey and white with long legs on which it darts around the grassland where it likes to live.  By 2005 the population had dropped to just over 200 adults, so – with help from RSPB, who are still one of the Trust’s main funders – Saint Helena National Trust has been leading the work to protect those that remain.  This has included protecting and re-establishing the wirebird’s preferred habitat (they are concentrated now in a handful of sites across the island) and controlling the numbers of rats, mice and feral cats who prey on eggs and chicks.  I spent last Tuesday with the wirebird team (Denny and Kevin) checking and resetting cat traps and looking for wirebird nests or recently hatched chicks.  The nests – and the eggs – are brilliantly camouflaged.  Even experienced spotters like Denny and Kevin can only spot a nest by the fact that it will have a parent (either mother or father) sitting on it and when they sense danger they will sit up, jump off the nest, and make a distraction display some metres away.  We found eight eggs and six chicks, and it was wonderful to see how pleased Denny and Kevin were to know that the birds are still successfully breeding.  This year’s count hasn’t been done yet, but by last year it looked as if numbers had risen to nearer 400 adult birds.

    David hopes his work on highlighting how rare the endemic invertebrates are, through the respected voice of IUCN, will give access to funds which can be used to help protect and restore their habitats.  Quite apart from the fieldwork which he does, he has to spend big chunks of time entering massive amounts of detail into IUCN’s red listing database.  But, as with the wirebird team, his enthusiasm is impressive.  It was great to have him lead our walk today – pointing out insects, plants and archaeology – and even persuading me to sample a couple of St Helenian plants: samphire (a native) which looks like a herb, and has small leaves like grains of rice which taste salty but not unpleasant, and the disconcertingly named babies’-toes (an endemic), which (apart from being green) does look disconcertingly like toes growing out of babies’ feet and has the texture – and some of the taste – of a raw pea.

    It is against the background of these important nature conservation projects that Jeremy, the Trust’s director, has asked me to work with him on building up the Trust’s involvement in conserving St Helena’s historic buildings.  At the moment we are looking particularly at the – numerous – fortifications on the island.  At one time St Helena was one of the most heavily defended places in the world: because of its strategic importance and, for the six years between when he arrived and when he died, because we were convinced that the French would try to liberate Napoleon.  These fortifications are all very visible as you move round the island: on headlands, or towering over Jamestown, the capital.   Almost all them are owned by, or in the care of, St Helena Government, and they have not been a priority for spending – either on stopping them falling down, or on telling their stories.  The government and the Trust are both expecting that when tourism expands, so will interest in these sites.  So Jeremy has been talking to the government about what role the Trust could usefully play in helping to care for and present some of them.  As well as helping to preserve these places, this would mean that the Trust was living up to its broader remit which, like the National Trust in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, covers both naturally beautiful and historically interesting places.

    Part of this initiative might involve using a company set up by Saint Helena National Trust.  This is not, strictly speaking, a subsidiary of the Trust, but its objects make clear that it exists to support the work of the Trust.  Understanding how this company, and its relationship with the Trust, work in legal terms is not straightforward.  St Helena has its own laws which are very reminiscent of, but not the same as, those of England.  The St Helena equivalent of primary legislation are the ‘ordinances’ made by the Governor.  There is a general ordinance which says that, in the absence of a St Helena ordinance dealing with a matter, English law applies to the extent that it is realistic to apply it.  That sounds like quite a neat idea in theory, but how it applies in practice is quite another issue!  There is an ordinance which deals with the formation and regulation of companies, but it is not as comprehensive as the corpus of English company legislation, and much of the law which would link into it (like tax law) is much less full here, and is different.  There is, for example, no equivalent of tax relief on gifts to charity (whether for gifts from individuals or from companies).  Nor is there any published guidance or advice available on practical aspects of running a St Helenian company – partly because there are no private practice lawyers on the island, and partly because there are relatively few companies (the Trust’s company was formed last year, and is company no.100).  So Jeremy, the two other directors of the company and I have arranged to see the registrar of companies at the end of this month to talk through some of the practicalities.

    I am also working with Jeremy on a project to provide an appropriate resting place for skeletons and bones from a cemetery which was disturbed during the building of the road leading to the new airport.  During the mid-19th century, after Britain had abolished slavery, it tried to stop other countries dealing in slaves.  One might have views on whether that was for ethical reasons or commercial ones, but the British navy set about the task with considerable zeal.  Because of its position en route between Africa and America, St Helena was a base for the naval squadron entrusted with this work, and a tribunal was set up here to try slave traders and liberate the slaves – many of whom were then offered the opportunity to work on English owned plantations in the Americas.  But such were the conditions on slave ships that many of the Africans on the ships had either already died, or died whilst waiting to leave St Helena.  It is they who were buried in the cemetery which has been disturbed.  The government here and the airport contractors realise they need to find a suitably respectful way of providing a long term resting place for the remains, which cannot be reburied in the same place.  I gather that there are strong but differing views locally about how this should be done.  St Helena National Trust has been asked – I think because it won’t be thought to have any particular axe to grind – to lead the consortium of bodies which are trying to find a solution.  A bit of a poisoned chalice, I think!  One of the things I’ve been talking to Jeremy about is who we should be consulting during the consultation phase – and to what extent, if at all, should we be looking beyond St Helena?

    Until the airport opens in 2016 the RMS St Helena is the island’s only real conduit for physical contact with the rest of the world. The main airport contractor has its own ship to bring in materials and plant, which uses a dedicated wharf in a different bay from the main harbour.  And there is an occasional private yacht, or even more occasional cruise ship.  Apart from that, anyone who comes to the island (or leaves it) comes or leaves on the RMS St Helena.  The ship runs on a roughly three week cycle: Cape Town > St Helena > Ascension Island > St Helena > Cape Town.  That makes this Tuesday a big day – because it is when the ship arrives from Cape Town.  With returning St Helenians, with tourists who will stay perhaps for a week while the ship goes to Ascension and back, and – most importantly – with imported fresh fruit.  There is fresh fruit grown on the island, but much of it is exchanged between people living here and never makes it to the shops.  The rumour is that this week the cargo on the RMS St Helena will include peaches and nectarines.  As I was settling in when this excitement happened last month, I will be interested to see just how frenetic the normally calm Jamestown becomes.

    With very best wishes


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