Ben, my husband, is on his way back to St Helena to start research that could both benefit cloud forest and improve drinking water resilience. He is on the Royal Mail Ship St Helena which is never a disappointment, but is rather an expensive way of traveling when time is charged by the day. Planes will open the island up to a diversity of skills that are currently just too expensive. Ten working days to travel and then increments of weeks, rather than days, on the island certainly do not make for slim line budgeting.
With all this in mind he is very fortunate to be going back, not just because it is a splendid place and will enjoy catching up with friends but because he has research to and a project to deliver. And a very interesting one it is too. In a previous blog that must be over eighteen months ago, I spent an inelegant day sliding down a very special, rather unpredictable slope on Diana’s Peak all in aid of setting this up. You can read about this .
The idea started whilst I was ferreting around in the ANRD library for hidden gems that could help me generate a baseline for the island’s Environmental Monitoring Programme. In among the geriatric veterinary magazines and yellowing annual agricultural reports I found wedges of meteorological data and a hidden treasure trove of CEH (Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) reports from the turn of the century (sorry couldn’t help myself it was about 2000). CEH had investigated, in a very rudimentary way, the water retention of soils in four of the islands habitats, each defined by the vegetation. Their research too experienced the usual issues of patchy time on island, budgets and unpredictable data collection but the rather noisy data were enough to show that endemic and unique cloud forest is far better at harvesting mist than invasive species. Even if it had just started growing after clearance of invasives. The aim, I think, was to investigate the potential of clearing land and growing Norfolk Island Pine. These are good at harvesting mist when grown in isolation, not so good in stands and what would appear to me to be another invasive disaster in waiting. Fortunately, the idea did not progress. However, it was only a conversation with Lourens Malan, the Conservation Officer at the time who is now investigating endemic invertebrate species in the cloud forest, that the full potential of this research came to light.
So what is the project? We are going to investigate valleys in the Peaks and see whether the types of plant that grow there influence the amount of water that they shed, controlling for weather conditions. We may also be able to see if they retain water better resulting in less flashy, erosion causing flow. There is a case that they may actually create their own weather, but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. Ben has embraced his inner meteorologist and hydrologist, sourcing suitable weather stations, data loggers, and water flow measurement equipment. With a certain amount of co-ordination, persistence, a bit of luck and an excess baggage charge of just under £200 for 5kg it should be all there when he arrives in a week. (Friends hoping for gifts I’m afraid he was there with his scales trying to work out how to make it not be 10kg which would have just given him change out of £400).
The aim is to look at a river catchment where endemic flora dominates, which would be lovely, but there are none left. The next best thing is Wells Gut where perhaps 50% of the vegetation is endemic. Take a look at the photograph above and you will see Diana’s Peak to the left and the conservation gardening line is a clear diagonal across the hillside. Above this the Peaks Team, under the management of Mike Jervois, invest a great deal of time in weeding out invaders and nurturing the unique cloud forest habitat. Below this is a patchwork of greens that another Darwin Plus project will help with (Mapping St Helena’s Biodiversity and Natural Environment). In Wells Gut several regeneration techniques have been trialed. You can see a bright green triangle that is a piece of regularly weeded ground which has been a surprisingly ineffective regeneration technique. The emerald green is due to endemic ferns but the constant interference seems to be slowing more mature habitat forming. To the right and below the peak with the treee is a saucer of flax, below which there is a river of whiteweed cascading down the hillside in a triangle. It smothers anything near it and results in the St Helena island becoming an ocean of white with the most cloying sweetness on April evenings. In the melee there are endemics fighting to get through. The smooth looking bright green area in the middle of the picture is cleared whiteweed. Experience has shown that clearing it just gives another flush of whiteweed rather than give space for endemics to re-establish. The soil is bone dry, unlike that found under the ferns and tree-ferns which is spongy and moist.
A second valley will be used as comparison, Vine Gut. Like Wells Gut this is also a major drinking water source for the island, but it is strangled by invasive species, conifers, flax and whiteweed.
With a combination of surface water flow monitoring, weather stations, relative humidity and other dataloggers the aim is to build up a water balance for the two valleys. This will be overlain with ecological data from LIDAR and drone generated species profiles courtesy of Sam Cherrett.
The budget and timescale of this project will allow the data to be ‘good enough’ to show whether if you preserve and re-establish the cloud forest you protect the water supply. If you re-establish the cloud forest you help the forest’s chances of adapting to Climate Change. This means that there is the chance that the island can maintain a meaningful water supply meeting the pressures of tourism, that the airport surely will bring later if not sooner, as well as the inevitable but (optimistically limited) impact of Climate Change.
The urgency of this is underlined by another year of water scarcity with reservoirs becoming very depleted exacerbated by late rains. Connect has refurbished and extended reservoirs which should help considerably, but if forests do not capture or create the mist there will be no water to reserve. The cloud forests need to be valued as a central part of Climate Change and water management strategy.
The additional benefits being that conservation work, particularly with the research into re-establishment techniques, could deliver a more reliable water supply than expensive and space taking reservoirs whilst protecting some the UK’s most vulnerable, diverse and unique habitat. In practice a combination of conservation and reservoirs would appear the best method to build water resilience. Maybe conservation would also have tourism potential, but as a model of sustainability: environmental, social and economic it does not get any better.
The project is a partnership with Connect, the island utility company, contributing to the research and ultimately benefiting from the findings. In addition, the work is surprisingly novel so CEH and Royal Botanic Gardens Kew are also partners. All of this is administered by SHG with particular help from Trevor Graham to get the project started and managed by us in the form of our company Arctium.
What has inspired Ben and me is the enthusiasm of the team and their willingness to contribute. There has been a lot of chivvying, organising and monitoring made exciting with the fizz of ideas and enthusiasm. It has drawn on several previous Darwin funded projects so that all should become greater than a sum of the parts, but it is the little things along the way that make the difference. It is hard to pick an example, but the one that made us smile most was the wonderful coincidence when Alan Gray at CEH noticed some mist catchers in pretty good condition being cleared out so he sent them for a spot of reuse on island. As I seem to have turned this piece into environment bingo can I tick the waste management box too please?
The project is funded by DEFRA via Darwinplus an excellent initiative designed to help countries with rich environmental diversity but without financial resources to match. A quick look on the Darwinplus page is always very inspiring. The fund provides hundreds of thousands of pounds on which St Helena is reliant to support its environmental terrestrial and marine work which is crucial to the understanding and protection of the environment. The next step to turn research into action would have been Lifeplus funding from the EU, although that sits in the balance.