For my first few days on St Helena, visiting the Bugs on the Brink project, the weather has been a bit wet and rainy, which is a bit damper than expected but it did make it like being at home. David Pryce, our Invertebrate Project Officer based on the Island, took me out to start showing some of the island and hot spots for bugs.
First stop was the George Benjamin Arboretum, a far from natural habitat but a useful showcase of some of the islands upland endemic plants (these are species that only occur on St Helena), including both the He cabbage and She cabbage.
George Benjamin is remembered as he devoted his life to the endemic plants of St Helena and made a huge contribution to the conservation work on St Helena.
After that we met Jason from the Community Forest Project at High Peak. Talking to him really brought alive the conservation challenges on island. Until about 40 years ago the island was grazed heavily by goats, donkeys and rabbits which turned it from a leafy island to a barren and bare place. Once the grazing stopped the island did start to green up considerably but unfortunately this was at the expense of the natural plants with invasive non-natives taking over.
At High Peak much of the vegetation is now New Zealand flax, ginger, arum lily and this has completely over-whelmed the native species that should be there. Jason and his team are painstakingly removing the invasive and re-stocking with such as Black cabbage, She cabbage, Tree fern, Dwarf jellico, Redwood and Black-scale fern. This area is highly exposed and shrouded in mist, which creates unique conditions known as Cloud Forest, where many of the species use the moisture in the air to enable them to grow.
Bugs on the Brink
This habitat restoration work is crucial and closely linked to Bugs on the Brink work. The cloud forest at High Peak is a key habitat for the Spiky yellow woodlouse (Pseudolaureola atlantica), which seems to be restricted to this area. Stabilising and increasing the places where it can live is essential to boost the spiky population – I’m hoping to find out a bit more about this work later in the week.
After High Peak we went over to Blue Point which is on the south west side of the island. As with much of the island this area was heavily grazed by feral goats. Regenerating plants are mostly non-natives with a few original species of plants clinging on the edges of cliffs, mainly where they were out of reach of hungry goats! Since the grazing was reduced these are starting to creep back but restoration is taking place to try and speed up this process. These pockets of habitat restoration are important for our work as they are increasing areas of suitable for bugs which will give them a change to thrive.
Here we managed to see the island’s four species of butterfly all in one day – this is the Long-tailed blue (Lampides boeticus), Diadem (Hypolimnas misippus), African monarch (Danaus chrysippus) and Painted lady (Vanessa cardui). The Long-tailed blue has a clever adaptation to protect it from predators. Where the tail meets the wing there are two ‘eye spots’ which divert the predator away from the more vulnerable parts of the body. A strong flyer, the Long-tailed blue migrates over large distances and is able to travel over huge expanses of land and water – despite being a dainty little thing!