Farming News

Part of my work on Tristan da Cunha involves keeping the islanders informed as to what we are doing, and why. It is important that I try to develop a general understanding of the steps that we are taking, the advances that we are making, and our overall objectives.

I have just sent out the following notes, which may be of interest off-island as well.

TDC Farming News                       Issue 3                          April 2018

Cattle Ear Tags

 I am sure that everyone has seen the new ear tags in the cattle, which were applied last week. There is a high-visibility tag in one ear, and a little button tag in the other ear, each with the same number. These tags will serve as an individual ID for each animal, and they will enable the Department to maintain full records of each animal from birth to death, including breeding details, treatments, and ownership details. All cattle on the Settlement Plain have been tagged. From now on, soon after calves are born they will be tagged.

Cattle owners may choose, if they wish, not to cut-mark their calves in the future since the ear tags will provide a clear identification of each animal.

Vannessa has a list of owners and numbers, which is available if anyone wishes to check what numbers their own cattle carry.

Cattle owners are asked to please notify the Department if they give or sell an animal to another person, so that the records can be updated. Also the Department needs to be informed in the event of the death of an animal, whether through slaughter or any other cause. Also, cattle owners are asked to please notify the Department in the event of the loss of an ear tag, so that a replacement tag can be fitted.

Cattle on the Western Plain with their new ear tags


As part of the Department’s programme of pasture improvement, a 4-acre plot just to the west side of Jenny’s Watron has been fenced off and reseeded.

The area inside the fence was sprayed off some three weeks ago, and in the last week the ground has been limed, fertilised, a seed-bed prepared, a grass seed mixture sown, and finally the area was rolled.

The seed mixture has been especially prepared for us by a specialist seeds company in Scotland, based on their experience of broadly similar conditions in the western Highlands. The mixture includes specific varieties of Italian ryegrass, perennial ryegrass and cocksfoot, with some white clover. These grasses are high-yielding and high-digestibility varieties. If we are able to obtain good establishment of these productive grasses they should go some way towards addressing the acute overgrazing that we see on the island (together of course with all the other actions that are needed, including the ongoing application of lime and fertiliser and the reduction in herd size)

If weather conditions permit, we hope to reseed a large area at Pigbite, where the alluvial deposits brought down by the floods a year ago currently represent a net loss of grazing land. It would be very good if we can in this way recover some of the land lost to the floods.

It is also intended to reseed the Hospital Field, once all the débris left by Gulliford Try has finally been cleared.

It was mentioned above that the reseeded area at Jenny’s Watron was rolled after sowing the grass seed. The reason for this is that rolling helps boost germination, and it helps grass establishment by conserving soil moisture. The rolling was carried out by an island-made machine comprising two recycled gas bottles welded together and filled with concrete – it is a perfect size and weight, and cost virtually nothing!

Our new pneumatic seeder being used for the first time to reseed a block of grazing land
Two empty gas bottles and ¾ tonne of concrete produces a perfect roller for the newly seeded area

Sheep Breeding

Our new burdizzos (bloodless castrators) arrived some weeks ago, and the Department spent a day selecting ten of the best ram lambs to be kept, and castrating all the rest. This operation should be carried out every year from now on. In the meantime we are hopeful that we can bring some fresh blood into the island sheep by using AI. This is a much more complicated procedure than cattle AI, and we are in touch with a specialist who may be able to help us with this breeding programme.

Gypsum for Potatoes

We had a very positive reaction to our notice about applying gypsum to the ground before planting potatoes, in order to improve cell structure and keeping qualities of the potatoes, with a likely reduction in the incidence of soft rot. An order is now being processed for two tons of gypsum, which will be sold through the Agrishop.

Winter Feed for Cattle

 A number of people have taken us up on the offer of seed and lime for the winter production of fodder crops in the Patches, these crops include swede, turnip and kale. The Department has also planted some of these crops in the Mission Gardens, to give us first-hand experience of the problems and potential for this sort of winter fodder production.

Fruit Trees

 We hope to repeat the programme we carried out last year for the import of young fruit trees – apples, pears and plums. However, our supplier from last year has just told us that he is only prepared to supply minimum quantities of one hectare (2.4 acres) per variety! We are looking now for a nursery that can be more accommodating.

a small plot of Dwarf Crinkly Kale in the Mission Gardens, – winter greens about to be available in the shop!]

Greenhouses and Gardens

 On a small scale, we are now in production of our winter crops including broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages, and for the first time crinkly kale should be in the shop this week. In the greenhouses, cucumbers and green peppers are in production, and we should be shopping tomatoes again very soon. We have some lettuces that are now ready, although we have had a bit of a set-back in that some lettuce varieties that we planted are not the varieties that it said on the packet. The intention is to grow salad crops, including lettuces and radishes, throughout the winter months.

A large consignment of produce was sold to the cruise ship Le Lyriol, and we hope to keep in touch with the cruise ships in order to produce to their requirements in future years.

We have quite a number of indoor and outdoor ornamental plants in the greenhouses, and it is intended to set up a day for these to be sold outside the Agrishop very soon.

Bee and I hope to be off on our annual leave on the Edinburgh – we wish everyone a pleasant winter with enough rain to obtain good grass germination without it being too much for personal comfort!

Alasdair Wyllie – Agriculture Adviser and editor of TDC Farming News

Cattle and Overgrazing on Tristan Da Cunha

It is not known exactly when the first cattle arrived on Tristan, but it was certainly in the very early days of the community in the early 1800’s. The Leader of the island then was Corporal William Glass, who had somewhat utopian plans for the structure of the social community which included shared ownership of all the island’s assets, including the cattle. However, this cooperative ownership idea was changed before long, and individual ownership was established. Some individuals built up quite large herds, and they profited by bartering the meat with visiting ships, in exchange for tea, flour, sugar, and hardware items. Overstocking rapidly became a problem, and cattle numbers were controlled by hard winters resulting in starvation and death. The worst year was in 1906, when numbers had built up to about 700 head of cattle, and the bad winter resulted in the death of around 360 individuals.

Individual ownership of cattle remains to this day. Every household has a quota of cattle, and these cattle are largely run as a herd, with the Agriculture Department carrying out some of the services for the cattle, including health treatments, fertiliser and fencing of the pastures, and the provision of bulls and AI. However, because the cattle are all individually owned it is not possible for the Agriculture Department to make any of the all-important management decisions, such as the selection and culling of animals for genetic improvement, and such as limiting overgrazing by means of herd reduction.

One of our new young Aberdeen Angus bulls

Efforts have been made in the past to improve the bad situation that had resulted from overgrazing. Back in 1975, a quota system was introduced, with each household being limited to 4 breeding cows. This was later reduced to 3 per household, and in 1983 it was reduced further to 2 per household.

Overgrazing, on the scale found on Tristan da Cunha, has resulted in a circle of negatives. Cattle have been undernourished, and the poor growth rates have meant that steers go to slaughter at well below optimum weights, and are kept far too long in the herd before slaughter resulting in animals being on the pastures for too long, thus there are too many mouths to feed on a continuous basis. The cattle themselves have to spend far more time grazing than they should, and thus they spend too much energy in the grazing process. On Tristan, another dimension is that the fact that the cattle are having to graze grass that is too short means that they are grazing grass that is loaded with volcanic grit which is very abrasive, and which wears their teeth down at an unacceptable rate, this itself resulting in early death. Meanwhile, the forces of grassland ecology have progressively resulted in the surviving grasses being those that are adapted to growing very close to the ground – the grasses that try to grow upwards merely get chewed down as soon as they rise from the ground. Also, with so little leaf area, the overgrazed grass takes far too long to recover and to start growing again when the stock are moved to another pasture. To this whole process can be added the shortage of nitrogen fertiliser being applied, and a very low pH because of no lime being applied to the grasslands (resulting in very poor grass growth rates). Lifetime stunted growth in the cattle, and fertility problems, are two other consequences of poor nutrition.  Altogether, the overgrazing has made the situation with both cattle and grass progressively worse, year after year. To this unhappy cycle you can add the effects of mineral deficiencies that are known to exist here, and a further dimension is the loss of roughly 10% of the grazing area as a result of the silt and rock slides that took place in the floods of April 2017.

Our new tractor spreading fertiliser on stunted grass

Nearly a year ago, I presented a report which went into great detail on the cattle crisis, and which listed some options that could be selected. This included the possibility of reducing the quota from two cows per household to one. The Department was obliged to carry out a referendum on the subject, which showed no public appetite for change. However, although the reduction in herd size was not at the time selected, the issue was widely discussed throughout the year, particularly when the condition of the cattle was visibly deteriorating. The matter came up to the Island Council once again just a few weeks ago, and the decision was made to reduce the quota from two cows to one. A brave and historic decision!

Lots of cattle – and very little grass

The benefits of this decision will not be immediate. The action to halve the adult cow quota will not be effective until the end of March 2019, to give people time to select and cull the surplus animals. Bearing in mind that the adult cows make up only about one third of the total herd, it will then take three years before the reduction in cow numbers passes through to all the young stock. Thus we are looking at a four-year programme of cattle number reduction.

Although there are very obvious economic and management benefits of greatly reducing cattle numbers and overgrazing, it is not possible to predict with any accuracy how the actual numbers will evolve. This is because it is a dynamic situation with many different factors involved. For example, the islanders may follow trends elsewhere in the world and reduce red meat consumption in favour of fish (which of course is plentiful here) resulting in a reduced interest in maximising individual ownership of cattle. Also, there is a declining human population on the island, hence there will be a decline in the number of households having a cattle quota. In addition, it can be expected that better grazing will result in faster growth rates, resulting in beef cattle reaching slaughter weight far quicker, so that at any given time there will be proportionally fewer young stock than is the case at present. This latter point is key – if the cattle reach slaughter weight quicker, they will be less time on the hoof taking all the costly inputs of medication, fertiliser, fencing, and so on. It is noteworthy that the two young bulls that arrived recently from South Africa, at 16 ½ months of age, were massively heavier than any of the island steers which are generally slaughtered at an average age of more than three years. This point was certainly not lost on the islanders, and the timing of the arrival of the new bulls, just a few weeks before the Island Council decision, was fortuitous in providing visual evidence!

Around the community, the feedback I am being given since the Island Council decision is that “something had to be done”.   It is interesting to reflect on the processes of debate and decision-making on the island. In brief, it seems that the ‘voice of the people’ is an essential element in the debate on important local issues, but that there is respect for the hard but sensible decisions that sometimes have to be made by the elected representatives on the Island Council.

Cattle on the overgrazed Western Plain

Life on Tristan (1)

In order to try and describe how our life has been for the first four months on Tristan, I have to start by describing some overall details of this exceptionally remote island.

Tristan is a volcano, and quite a new one at that. Some 200,000 years ago there was the series of eruptions that caused the island to be formed in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. Thanks to the previous volcanic formation of some islands in the area (such as the tiny islands of Nightingale and Inaccessible) the ocean floor around Tristan is relatively shallow – only around 2,000 metres deep, as distinct from 4,500 metres deep over much of the Southern Atlantic.

Once the main landmass was formed, the forces of nature immediately started to attack the classic conical shape of an isolated sea volcano. Around the coast, wave erosion cut into the coastline, heavy rain caused erosion from the high ground, and at the same time new mini-volcanoes appeared, providing a complexity to the classical conical shape. This dynamic process is continuing to this day, and it will continue into the future. The 1961 eruption, which happened to be very close to the settlement of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, was just a part of this dynamic process.

Tristan remains a classic conical volcano; the island is round like a clock face, and it is possible to pin-point features around the coast by reference to the clock. For example, Edinburgh is at 11 o’clock, Sandy Point is at 3 o’clock, Stony Beach is at 6 o’clock, and the Caves are between 7 and 8 o’clock.

The ‘Clock’ of Tristan

The four places mentioned in the last paragraph are the four places where there is flat-ish ground and where there is some form of agricultural activity. In the past, particularly between the 1950’s and the 1970’s, there was quite a lot of agricultural work at Sandy Point – including the growing of potatoes, and the planting of apple trees and forestry trees (largely conifers and eucalyptus). Sandy Point enjoys a much more benign climate than the rest of the island, being in the lee of the strong prevailing winds, and the forestry trees have been very successful. However, access is the problem. There are no roads on the island other than on the Settlement Plain, and sea access is hazardous and only possible when the weather is right. In the past people made quite frequent journeys to Sandy Point, but now calm sea days are devoted to the fishing for crayfish and the men of the island have no time to tend the apples and to grow potatoes in this difficult terrain. I have been told that up to about twenty years ago, every year one day was designated as ‘Hapling Day’ (Apple-ing Day) and up to three longboats full of apples returned to the Settlement, but that is now all in the past.

Nowadays, the three outlying flatish areas are used for the grazing of cattle, which are very much left to fend for themselves. I have been lucky enough to go out to The Caves and to Sandy Point by joining teams of men going out to slaughter cattle for meat. In each case the process was much the same. The party set off in the ‘Government Launch’ with an oar-powered boat in tow. On arrival off the beach, the shore party transferred to the small boat and rowed ashore, leaving two qualified boatmen in the launch – it is not possible for the launch to land, and two men are needed for safety reasons. The islanders have enough experience of the hazards of the sea to have developed strong safety procedures.

View from the pasture land at the Caves, looking south towards Stony Point

When I went to The Caves, the oar-powered boat was taken ashore in relatively calm waters, but frighteningly close to the roar of breakers on a reef. The boat was beached at speed so that it rose up onto the gravel beach and as one the men jumped ashore, and we all pulled the boat up well clear of the water. Even with the boat high and dry two shore-lines were tied so that there was no risk of the boat departing on its own.

Our boat at the caves

[Pic – LT2 – Caption = Our boat at The Caves]

The slaughter process was done with rifles, not unlike shooting deer. The cattle were pretty wild since they are never handled. Just one cow was shot, butchered, loaded up into big plastic bags and carried to the boat.

On the return journey, two men stayed in the small boat with the meat while the rest of us transferred into the launch. The men in the small boat were then able to handle the boat and tie it up when we were back in the harbour. For me, it was interesting and exciting to see the island from a different vantage point.

Returning to the harbour

The second meat trip I did was to Sandy Point. I had read a lot about this place in Agricultural Officers’ reports dating from the 50’s and 70’s, and I was very anxious to visit it. The opportunity came up at short notice. On that day I had organised a Field Visit to our little Greenhouse project for members of the Agriculture Committee. When I started work at 6.30 that morning I learned that three of the five people expected would not be coming – they each had arranged to do more important things. I also learned that a boat was going to Sandy Point, departing in about an hour. So I cancelled the Field Visit, borrowed a lifejacket, picked up a bag with a sandwich (thanks to Bee) my waterproofs and a camera, and headed to the harbour.

The journey around the coast was uneventful, but the seas were higher than had been expected, and landing the small boat on shore was going to be challenging. The communication between the men on the oars as we approached the beach was interesting – voices were louder than usual and there was an evident tension. For the ‘final landing’ we made it – just! The boat was not maintained stern-on to the waves, and we broached. The starboard gunwale had six inches of water pouring over it, and most of the men ended up waist-deep in the water having exited the boat rather more quickly than they had intended!

Sandy Point – steep ground and trees

I remained with members of the group until the steer was shot – that way they knew where I was and the risk of a shooting accident was avoided! Incidentally, I did notice that the procedures for gun safety were well developed and strictly followed. These are high-powered rifles, and when not required for cattle slaughter they are stored in the armoury in the Police Station.

All habitation on the island is included in this view of Edinburgh of the Seven Seas