The Plant Protectors: What is it like looking after our island's endemics?

04 October 2019 By Andrew Turner

The prospect of a climb up to 800m first thing in a morning up muddy slopes and thick plant growth, just to get to work, is not something that most of us these days would even consider.

But for the determined conservationists of St Helena, it's a reality.

There's a distinct kind of chilling mist that you only get round the peaks in the early hours of the day. Mic-kail (as videographer) and I experienced this last Tuesday morning as we began the ascent to meet the Terrestrial Conservation team at the Nursery on Diana's Peak.

For the team, the long walk is just another day in the office. But by the time we reached the Nursery, I was already looking for the nearest place to sit down and catch my breath.

The Nursery is an incredible place full of Redwoods, Whitewoods, She Cabbage and at least six different varieties of ferns. Perry Leo, who looks after the Nursery, showed me around the endemic plants and how they are protected at their most vulnerable stage as seedlings, when pests represent a particular problem.

"Mostly it's the aphids and whitefly," Perry said. "Out in the field we get rats and also rabbits sometimes. We use sticky pads and sprays [for the insects]. For the rats, the team sets poison and for smaller plants we put a cage around them to try and help them."

But the work at the Nursery is only part of the conservation efforts centred on the Diana's Peak National Park.

Led by conservationist Andrew Darlow, the team began to pack some of the older plants in bags and I was told we were heading up to the planting site.

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With a bag of surprisingly heavy plants cradled in our arms, we set off on the long trek up to Cuckold's Point.

Often, and no matter the weather, the team carry armfuls of plants with them on the trek from the Nursery up to the top of the peaks, even while balancing along various ledges and mountainsides.

By the time we reach the top, I'm done for. And it's still only 8.30am for the team; this is still just the start of the day.

The endemic plants we carried are being used to fill the void left by invasives, such as flax, which the team is clearing and composting in the area.

The entirety of the hillside needs to be cleared of invasive plants and replaced quickly with endemics to prevent the invasives growing back, and the clearing is done in stages to prevent landslides occurring due to open soil on the slopes. The flax, the team said, is perfect for compost so even the cleared invasives are being reused as a result of the project.

St Helena houses around 30% of the biodiversity in the whole of the UK and its overseas territories, and Diana's Peak National Park is a main habitat for endemic plants and insects. The work the team is doing is replenishing the island's natural environment and allowing the flora and fauna found nowhere else on earth, a better chance to survive.

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But the work is labour–intensive, and can also be dangerous. The majority of the mountainsides have no access paths, meaning that the team have to make their own paths. With many ledges and cliffs hidden by the thick flack growth, a constant exercising of caution is necessary.

"You need to be fit, you need to know things," said Shade-House Nursery Office Mark Williams, who has been with the team for approximately three months. "It's all about health and safety up here on the peaks when you're working on the ledges – there are deep drops which you can't see because of the Tree Fern that's covering them, so you're just walking blind."

Approximately a quarter of the sites being worked on require the team to use climbing gear.

Their work can be pretty gruelling, but it's crucial for protecting the island's biodiversity.

The wide-ranging benefits of the Peaks Project for the island include helping our endemics, bettering our tourism product – and even helping to improve the island's water situation.

Andrew explained that the endemics hold the soil in the peaks in place much better than the flax. Flax often falls off the hillsides and can create dangers once it starts rolling; and it holds more water than the endemics. Endemics mean less risk of landslide, and more chance for essential groundwater to run down from the peaks and supply the island's reservoirs.

SHG funds the recurrent peaks team but there is also a special project-funded team that are doing most of the more inaccessible areas.

"We've been running mainly on Darwin funding and this is the second three-year project," Andrew said.

If you enjoy the post box walks and decide to tackle the climb up to the top of St Helena's highest point, you might just see the team out there toiling away. Stop and have a talk with them, it's definitely worth it to meet the people who work so hard to preserve the endemic habitat and make the peaks as special as they are.