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Saving St Helena’s Bugs on the Brink: Building the Capability of a Budding Conservationist

Sasha Bargo from St Helena, a UK Overseas Territory situated in the remote South Atlantic, recently joined the RSPB and Buglife on a placement after her time studying her degree here in the UK. She spent eight days working with RSPB & Buglife staff, learning more about how we manage and survey plants and invertebrates on our reserves, how we advise on woodland and farmland management, how we support our partners in the UK Overseas Territories and has been getting stuck in with some community events! She will shortly be heading back to St Helena, to take up an exciting role on St Helena as an Invertebrate Survey Officer with our on-island partner, the St Helena National Trust. Here is her story:

 

Prior to my placement with RSPB & Buglife I studied a BSc degree in Ecology and Conservation Management at Sparsholt College Hampshire, venturing to the UK in 2013.  The course generalised in all species groups; where I found species identification skills a steep learning curve, not having the basic knowledge as students from the UK did.  The course was extremely interesting, providing a balance of theoretical and practical engagements. I thoroughly enjoyed learning traditional management techniques and applying the knowledge practically.   During my studies I developed an interest in Lepidoptera, a focus on the Duke of Burgundy Butterfly Hamearis lucina, on which my thesis was based. 

Before heading back to St Helena, I had the opportunity to join RSPB & Buglife to get an overview of plant and invertebrate projects the RSPB are involved in to help safeguard rare species, as well as local urban pollination projects with Buglife, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  The aspects I found most exciting and inspiring was completing various invertebrate survey techniques (including beating, sweeping, vacuum surveys, qaudrat and transact) all of which are suitable for a specific vegetation structure (e.g. beating for shrubs and trees, sweeping for long grass, vacuum surveys for short grass).  This experience expanded my skills and knowledge on methods I had no previous exposure to, by working closely with Mark Gurney (RSPB Field Ecologist) on the Lodge reserve.

 

Sasha learning different invertebrate survey skills to take back to St Helena.

At Buglife, I expanded my invertebrate identification skills whilst completing monitoring at a Peterborough’s Buzzing project site, working closely with Jamie Robins (Buglife Conservation Officer).  The aim of this project is to identify whether management to establish wildflower areas is successful in increasing flora and invertebrate fauna diversity, which is showing positive results.  Although the invertebrates of St Helena are different to the UK, with a many unique species restricted to extremely small ranges, through my studies and this placement I have developed general knowledge and understanding of survey methods which can then be applied in a sub-tropical ecosystem.

 

I also had the opportunity to visit the RSPB reserve Strumpshaw Fen with the Reserves Ecology team, where we completed botanically surveys for rare fen orchid to identify whether the current management was successful in increasing species richness and diversity.  I found plant identification challenging, as I had no previous insight to the identification of grasses, sedges and rushes, however the activity gave me a perspective of the specialism involved in plant identification in this habitat and allowed me to develop an eye for detail (e.g. using a hand lens to identify species by the ligule).

Buff tailed bumblebee at one of the Peterborough’s Buzzing project sites (Sasha Bargo).

On the last day of placement I undertook some community engagement work with Buglife, which involved educating school children and teachers about the importance of invertebrates to farmers.  This was completed by showing pictures to the public and explaining how farmers value each invertebrate. The best reaction was to the fact that crops are grown in earthworm poo! Earthworms are responsible for the decomposition of organic matter, and therefore the vital release of nutrients into the soil.

I also found it really interesting and useful to meet the RSPB staff managing projects across the different UK Overseas Territories, beyond my home island of St Helena. The team were extremely friendly, helpful and willing to answer my many questions about their jobs, enabling me to develop knowledge of conservation focuses and provided an insight into project management.  Of particular interest was meeting Lyndon John (UK Overseas Territories Officer – Caribbean), who is normally based in St Lucia in the Caribbean but was in the UK during my placement, and learning about the RSPB’s Caribbean Programme, notably the control of invasive non-native species and how the RSPB and partners are working to reduce the impacts on the native flora and fauna. Meeting the passionate faces behind the many overseas projects, and across the organisation, further inspired my interest in a career in research and conservation.

Sasha on an RSPB training session at the Lodge, RSPB Headquarters

Before venturing to the UK, I completed three years voluntary work with the St Helena National Trust (SHNT), a partner of RSPB & Buglife, working on two projects: the Wirebird Project (funded by BirdLife International) addressing the decline of the last remaining endemic bird of St Helena and the Darwin Plus funded Millennium Forest Project, focusing on forest restoration of endemic flora.

 

 The St Helena National Trust is leading an ambitious Millennium Forest Restoration Project in partnership with St Helena Government, RBG Kew & RSPB: the start in 2000 (left) and to present (right).  The trees planted are the endemic Gumwood Commidendrum robustum (St Helena National Trust).

My voluntary work with SHNT was the basis of my passion for conservation and developed a keen interest for me to contribute to the organisation.  This is now possible, as I successfully secured a post as the new Invertebrate Survey Officer for Bugs on the Brink Project, funded by the Darwin Initiative.  I am extremely excited to begin this position where I will be involved in invertebrate surveying to monitor the success of conservation projects, specimen preservation to identify to species level for the first time ever and I will be completing educational outreach projects.

 

I feel privileged to have undertaken this placement with RSPB & Buglife, as it has provided valuable knowledge and skills that I can transfer to Bugs on the Brink Project to make a conservation difference on St Helena.  It has also enabled me to learn more about the project partners, which has been made possible by working with like-minded, highly knowledgeable and inspirational specialists. 

Sasha surveying at one of the Peterborough’s Buzzing project sites

If you want to learn more about the invertebrate conservation work on St Helena and the RSPB’s work in the UK Overseas Territories, please contact Sarah Havery, Assistant International Officer Sarah.Havery@rspb.org.uk

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