Last week we introduced our Conservation Action blog which will showcase conservation stories from the UK and further afield. In today's blog, we're heading to St Helena in the South Atlantic to learn about the island's important cloud forest habitat and efforts to save it. Anna Feeney, RSPB PR Executive, takes up the story.
The UK’s rarest cloud forest isn’t easy to find. In fact, humans didn’t discover it until 1502, which is understandable given that the cloud forest in question is located deep in the South Atlantic, about 1,200 miles away from the nearest continent, on an island only about a third the size of the Isle of Wight.
Special species in the misty mountainsThis island, called St Helena, is a UK Overseas Territory, and plants and invertebrates made it their home long before humans did. And in that isolation they evolved into entirely new species – giant tree daisies, ‘blushing’ snails, and spiky yellow woodlice that glow under UV light, to name just a few.
The cloud forest alone holds 250 species of plants and invertebrates found nowhere else on Earth, making it the most important place for wildlife on UK soil.
St Helena is home to many species found nowhere else on earth, including the spiky yellow woodlouse. © Liza Fowler.
The fracturing cloud forestSadly, many of these species are now in danger, as St Helena’s cloud forest has declined from an estimated 600 hectares before humans’ arrival to just 16 hectares today.
After being discovered by humans the island became a site to stock and refuel on long ocean voyages, and those ships brought with them goats, rats, and mice which began to eat through much of the plant and animal life. This damage was then exacerbated as people began to cut down trees for timber and planted invasive non-native New Zealand flax plants as a crop to create ships’ ropes.
As well as leading to the extinction of irreplaceable species (the St Helena olive tree, for example, went extinct in 2003, making it the most recent extinction on UK soil), this destruction of the cloud forest also threatens the 4,500 people who live on St Helena. Most of the island’s fresh water is provided by these high peaks, with the majority of that being obtained via mist capture.
Over the past decade the island has already faced three severe droughts when the whole island was at risk of running out of water. Climate change projections for St Helena predict a major increase in severe drought events.
The remaining pockets of cloud forests are protected within the ‘Peaks National Park’, but funding was needed to prevent the remaining fragments being lost forever.
Cloud forest on St Helena is now limited to small, fragmented patches. © Sarah Havery.
How to save the cloud forest?The UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, stepped in with the majority funding for the St Helena Cloud Forest Project - a ten-year, collaborative project managed by the RSPB that aims to save the cloud forest. The plan is designed to help people as well as wildlife, and draws on the expertise of charities, hydrologists, landowners, tourism, and education sectors, all brought together by the St Helena Government.
The goal is to fully restore the cloud forest, protecting these critically endangered species and maintaining a water supply to the people of St Helena. This means using every tool at their disposal – creating gene banks of plant life, expanding plant nurseries, hacking away invasive species, replanting water catchments with native species and working with experts from around the world to apply cutting-edge techniques.
A range of partners are involved in the St Helena Cloud Forest Project to save this important habitat for people and wildlife. © Sarah Havery.
Three additional years of funding securedIn the first year of the project, The UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) provided £900,000, and in April we received the great news that the UK Government has committed £2.8m for the next three years of this long-term restoration project. This extra funding is designed to increase cloud forest habitat by 25% over five years and boost the water supply by 20% - helping wildlife and people.
This is hugely exciting as it will build on progress made in the first year of the project. Already the team have set up a world-class micro propagation laboratory and cleared invasive species to make room for reintroducing native habitat. The spiky yellow woodlouse has already been seen in these newly restored areas - living proof of how it and other invertebrates can bounce back when given the chance.
For more information, please visit: https://www.sthelenatourism.com/st-helenas-cloud-forest-project/
Thanks to our partners
UK Government, St Helena Government, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Environmental Management Division (St Helena Government), Arctium, University of British Columbia, St Helena National Trust, St Helena Tourism, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Connect St Helena Ltd, Darwin Initiative, St Helena Research Institute.
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