In today’s blog we hear from two conservation heroes, Kelly Swain and Natasha Glass, who are helping to restore native forest on Tristan da Cunha and prevent the first global bird extinction on British soil for over 60 years.

Natasha and Kelly live on Tristan da Cunha, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic and the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. Kelly and Natasha started working for the islands’ Agriculture Department in 2015 and have contributed to the more than 20 years of collaborative working between the Tristan da Cunha Government and the RSPB.

Tristan is a haven for seabirds, marine life and wildlife found nowhere else on the planet. Being so isolated, the small community must be largely self-sufficient, from subsistence agriculture to their sustainable fishing industry. Not only do Natasha and Kelly help to feed the community, but they are now also helping to save the native Phylica forest and a rare bird species, which depends on the trees.

The settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Tristan da Cunha © David Kinchin-Smith.

Invasive scale insect
An invasive scale insect was unintentionally introduced to the islands some years ago. This common garden visitor is now decimating the native Phylica forest – the fruits of which are a key food source for the Critically Endangered Wilkins’ Bunting of which there are fewer than 50 individuals left in the world.

As well as trying to control the scale insect, the RSPB are hoping to restore the native forest with Kelly and Natasha’s help. Together, they have established a thriving Phylica nursery on Tristan which will provide a stock of healthy trees for each island.

Tristan da Cunha conservation heroes: Kelly Swain (left) and Natasha Glass (right) © Natasha Glass.

Natasha explains further: “A lot of the island trees are dying because of the brown-scale insect and erosion. When we were asked if we were interested in being able to try growing Phylica I was so excited as this was something new and a real challenge.

Creating this nursery and being able to grow more of these trees will help to restore areas of the islands. It’s not just the Phylica trees that are under threat but also our wildlife that rely on the Phylica tree for habitat and food.

Being able to grow certain plants and trees for conservation has been a highlight for me and something that I would love to continue to do in the future.”

An unhealthy Phylica tree, infested by scale insects (left) © Kelly Swain; A healthy Phylica tree providing cover for a young Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross (right) © David Kinchin-Smith.

Kelly adds: “It’s so important to create this nursery to support the island’s Wilkins’ Buntings. It’s amazing that its actually happening; the seedlings and cuttings are growing. It’s a tremendous feeling, doing something that hasn’t been achieved for a long time. The nature on Tristan is so special and we take pride in our wildlife. By doing this work we hope to protect the wildlife.”

Kew Royal Botanic Gardens report that Phylica seeds are notoriously difficult to germinate. Kelly says “I think it’s only on Tristan that it likes to grow, which is why we’re having such success!” Their work, alongside that of the Conservation Department on the island is giving these beautiful trees and Critically Endangered Buntings real hope.

Lots of healthy Phylica seedlings in the Tristan nursery © Natasha Glass.

Feeding the community
When Natasha and Kelly aren’t tending to Phylica trees, they’re helping to grow crops to sustain the 250 people on the island.

When you’re almost 2,000 miles from the nearest landmass, self-sufficiency takes on a whole new meaning. New packets of seeds can take months to arrive and sometimes never turn up. Situated on the edge of the infamous Roaring Forties, the weather can also be wild: “you can have a whole plot of plants set out and the next day find them all gone due to strong winds”, says Natasha.

Natasha continues: “Farming such as cattle, sheep, and growing potatoes are the major enterprises on Tristan. The Department of Agriculture also manage the livestock and import fertilizers to help improve grazing and crop production.

Over the past couple of years, the growing of fruit and vegetables has become increasingly more important due to the logistical problems of getting plants and seeds to the island, as well as the ever-increasing problem of introducing more invasive species. The agriculture team now operates three greenhouses capable of growing salad crops and has a number of plots growing vegetables throughout the year.”

One of Tristan’s three greenhouses © Kelly Swain.

Kelly is following in her father’s footsteps: “From a young age I was interested in growing vegetables. It was something I grew up with, as my father’s hobby was growing vegetables and being self-sufficient. So, this is what I always wanted to do. I enjoy and love horticulture. Its healthy, beautiful and rewarding. I love being in the garden experiencing the silent process taking place around me. It’s a good feeling to keep something healthy and alive, and to see the production at the end.”

It is fantastic to see the progress that is being made to secure a future for the Phylica tree and for the Wilkins’ Bunting on Tristan. To find out more about Tristan da Cunha and the inspirational people who live there, visit:

Saving the Critically Endangered Wilkins’ Bunting
Biosecurity on Tristan da Cunha
Atlantic Guardians – protecting Tristan’s MPZ

Funding for the project ‘Saving Tristan’s only native tree and its associated unique buntings’ was provided by the Darwin Plus, UK Government grant scheme, and the John Ellerman Foundation.

Continue reading
New legal framework and biosecurity measures protect rare, endemic wildlife on Tristan da Cunha
Meet the world’s most remote Marine Protection Zone Officer
Action for Nature – sharing our stories

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