We all need some good news especially on World Environment Day.  So, I am delighted to share some excellent news about a boost for nature conservation in the UK's Overseas Territories (UKOTs).  Below, my colleague Jonathan Hall, who leads our work in the UKOTs, reports on the support we have secured from the UK Government.

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The UK Overseas Territories hold over 94% of unique British wildlife, every major habitat type on earth, and the world’s fifth largest marine estate. Despite being home to iconic species beloved by the UK public, such as a third of the world’s breeding albatross, and a quarter of the world’s penguins, their relative absence of the Territories from the public eye means that local conservationists have long struggled to get the levels of environment funding they need.

We were therefore delighted when the Chancellor announced in his March Budget that the vital Darwin Plus fund for UKOT environment projects would be increased to £10m per annum from next year. And today shows why this could, if well-programmed, have such an important impact, as DEFRA has announced the successful projects from its 2019 funding round. Not only are we delighted to see some of the fantastic projects of our UKOT NGO and Government partners receive support, but we have also been granted a total of £600k for two vital partnership projects in Tristan da Cunha and the Turks & Caicos.

In Tristan, an invasive scale insect is infesting the island’s only native tree species, the Phylica tree, ultimately killing them. Not only does the forest ecosystem therefore risk collapse, but some of the unique bunting species in the archipelago are now threatened with extinction. These buntings have evolved like the famous finches of the Galapagos, with the Wilkins’ bunting (see image below) on Nightingale Island evolving a large beak to specialise on the fruit of the Phylica. Whilst it has never had a large population on its small island home, today it is the rarest UK bird species, with less than 85 pairs remaining, and potentially facing catastrophe is the Phylica forest is lost.

We will be working in partnership with the Tristan Conservation Department, Fera and invasive control specialists CABI to carefully research, select and introduce a natural predator of the invasive scale insect, train at least 14 Tristan school children in horticulture and provide world-class agricultural pest training for local farmers. Much preliminary work will be undertaken to ensure that an appropriate specialist predator of the introduced scale insect can be released which will have no adverse consequences on the wider environment. A similar project successfully saved the gumwood forests of St Helena from collapsing due to another invasive scale insect, so we know this can be achieved.

The other project will help Turks & Caicos residents protect and celebrate their unique but critically endangered rock iguanas (see image below). This is a partnership with the Turks & Caicos National Trust, Turks & Caicos Government, San Diego Zoo and the management agencies of two privately owned islands. The iguanas feed on fruit and flowers and acts as a seed disperser and pollinator of many local plants. They were once widespread throughout the islands, but habitat loss and invasive predators has resulted in local extinction from many of the islands. The project aims to help tour and barge operators learn more about how they can support the iguanas, launching a voluntary ‘iguana friendly’ code of conduct, improve site management at important sites for iguanas and research to understand their conservation needs further.

Looking forwards, DEFRA is currently considering how to programme the newly increased Darwin Plus fund. As well as continuing to fund these medium-sized projects, many respondees to DEFRA’s recent consultation on the issue urged them to also fund small-scale (up to £100k) projects which only local OT organisations are able to apply for, as well as multi-million pound longer-term (4-5 year) transformational projects, such as island eradications or major habitat restorations. This is essential to support the grassroots work of local conservationists, but also to deliver identified solutions a suite of major nature-based solutions such as wetland, mangrove and peatland protection. By creating all three tiers of funding, the environments of the Overseas Territories will be able to thrive, to the benefit of their local communities and wildlife.

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