Extreme Storms on Tristan da Cunha

The last few weeks have seen extreme weather conditions of such a ferocity that they have been unusual, even for the windy island of Tristan.

The first storm-related events were in connection with the fishing- and cargo-ship the Edinburgh, which arrived off the island from Cape Town on 21 June.  She was carrying 12 passengers, fresh fruit and vegetables and other foodstuffs, and general cargo.  Because of sea conditions the passengers were unable to disembark and the ship sheltered in the lee of the island.  The following day there was a brief improvement in the weather, but a very bad forecast for the following week, and the unusual decision was made to anchor the Edinburgh to the east of the island and to take the passengers off in two RIB’s.  It must have been a very uncomfortable trip into Tristan’s tiny storm-bound harbour.

The weather was monitored closely to seize any opportunity to continue unloading, and an attempt was made on June 28 but had to be abandoned.  It was not until the 9 July that conditions permitted unloading to be recommenced in earnest, and the Edinburgh finally departed for Cape Town on 11 July.  Thus it was three weeks that the ship was at the island, waiting for the weather.  For the whole of that time the passengers who were due to depart on the ship were on permanent standby to go on board, with their bags packed, their good-byes said, and their refrigerators cleaned out.

This was just the forerunner of a very serious storm which hit the island on the night of 18 July.  An idea as to just how serious this was can be conveyed by listing the damage that was done by the storm.  The electrical system went down, and many buildings had some or all of their roofs stripped off by the wind – this included the Admin Building, the Police Station, the Post Office + Tourism Building, the Mechanical Workshop, the School, and the Residency.  The damage done by the storm was not limited to the removal of roofing and walling sheets, but since the storm was accompanied by very heavy rain there was substantial damage done to the contents of some of the buildings.  The extent of this damage is not yet known, but we can probably assume that most or all of the computers and archives have been destroyed.  One of the most serious losses has been the entire communications system, consisting of telephones and internet.  The island was dependent on the use of satellite phones to raise the alarm with the outside world.  Since then a line of contact has been arranged through CTBTO, which has a station on the island with a weak but functioning link to the outside world.

It is a great relief to be able to relate that no person was injured on the night of the storm.  There was also quite limited damage to any of the islanders’ houses, with just one house experiencing significant damage.  Also, the electrical system is now again operational, and by great good fortune the island shop and warehouse were not damaged, so food security is not an issue.

What is remarkable is the speed of the steps that have been taken by the British Government in the few days since the alarm was raised.  An extra-to-schedule ship will be leaving Cape Town in the next few days, bringing materials and equipment to get things repaired as far as possible.  Contractors have been appointed, and electrical and communication engineers will be travelling out on the ship.  Also on the ship will be the Administrator and his wife, who will be breaking off their UK leave and returning to the island to help co-ordinate the works.

The last serious storm to affect Tristan was on 7 June 2001, when 120-mph winds ripped roofs off buildings and when there was apparently heavy loss of cattle.

Part of the Residency roof ripped off
The Police Station – wrecked
The Mechanical Workshop – also wrecked
That’s my old office – and the puddle to the left is where the Agriculture staff tea room used to be
The blue box on its side is the 20′ container that we brought the two bulls in from South Africa – the brown patch is where it used to be before it lept the wall
The assembly hall at the school – where we watched Christmas concerts and where we played badminton


Fourth (and last) Farming News for Tristan da Cunha

I have published below copies of my local newsletter, the Farming News, which I have been putting out to the islanders of Tristan to keep them informed on what has been happening in agriculture on the island.  All islanders are heavily involved in agriculture – every household owns its own cattle and sheep, and every household grows potatoes in one or more Potato Patches, down on the western plain.

It has been vital that I have done my best to involve the islanders in the work that I have been doing.  For any progress to be made, and to be lasting, it is of course key that the islanders themselves are involved, and advocacy has been a major part of my work.  It is quite deliberate that I have referred to my final report, which will be able to give every islander a comprehensive picture of the steps that can be taken towards a more productive farming system.

Meanwhile, we are due to leave Tristan da Cunha in about two weeks time.  There are several more articles that I aim to publish in the coming months, when I am off-island.

TDC Farming News                       Issue 4                           March 2019

This is the fourth, and of course the final, ‘Farming News’ that I have put out in my time on Tristan.  As soon as the Edinburgh arrives back from Cape Town, Bee and I will be boarding, and leaving behind our Tristan friends and the farming challenges on the island.

I would like to use this page to summarise some of the steps that we have been able to take in the last 2 ¼ years, to outline the farming future which is now much more clear, and to make some suggestions to increase productivity.

Firstly, the cattle.  The decision to reduce the quota to one per household has been talked about for the last 40 years.  I have no doubt at all that it was the right decision, and that it will result in better pastures and greater production of meat.  It is only now, at the end of March, that we are coming up to the slaughter deadline for the new quota, and it will take at least three years before the reduced stock numbers are seen throughout the cattle population, including the youngstock.  Provided that the situation is handled properly, the increased growth rates will result in one of two possibilities – either owners will decide to slaughter their steers younger than has been the case up to now, or legislation will catch up with the quicker maturity of the cattle to reduce the compulsory slaughter age.  Either way, this will have the same result of having even fewer animals grazing at any one time.    In turn, this will enable the Department to have better control over the pastures, and it should be that in four or five years time the island will be able to start cutting surplus grass for hay, resulting in a stock of hay for winter feed which in turn, of course, will result in even better growth rates.  In my view this all heralds the most exciting period for the proper management of cattle on Tristan since the early days of man on the island.

Contented cattle grazing and lazing on American Fence, February 2019

Whereas steps towards the progress in productivity in the cattle are now in hand, the improvement in the sheep has not yet started, but it is now planned.  It has now been finally decided to introduce new genetics to the sheep on the island by the use of AI, using semen of Cheviot rams from the UK.  Sheep AI is quite different from cattle AI – in some regards it is more simple, and in other ways it is more complicated.  The first sheep AI programme should be happening in a year’s time, and islanders should be able to repeat the programme every three or four years, aimed at continuous improvement and increased productivity.  The Cheviot breed was chosen because it is hardy (thus suitable for  the harsh Tristan conditions), it has a good carcass quality, and it has excellent wool quality.

Livestock are of course dependent on grass production.  Almost all the soil on the island is extremely acid, with pH levels between 4.5 and 4.8.  To start the process of pH correction, in the last two years 70 tonnes of lime has been spread on the pastures.  Improvement in grass production is visible already.  This is just the start of a large long-term programme.  In round figures, 7 tonnes per hectare is needed on the 350 hectares of pasture, a total of 2,450 tonnes of lime.

Spreading lime near Jenny’s Watron, using the new high capacity machinery.  It would be possible to spread 20 tonnes per day with this machinery.

Lime is not, of course, the only requirement for increased grass production.  We also need to see a concerted programme of surface harrowing, and the regular application of fertiliser, particularly Nitrogen.  Urea contains double the percentage of nitrogen of any other fertiliser available, thus it costs half the amount to ship compared with other fertilisers (per unit of nitrogen) and it is easier to handle and spread.

It has been an interesting two years as far as the Greenhouses are concerned.  In the middle of 2017 a consignment of all sorts of horticultural equipment and materials was received, and this enabled the greenhouses to at last start to become properly productive.  We successfully grew salad crops throughout the winter months, we grew a range of culinary herbs, we grew a range of ornamental plants for sale in the agri shop, and we germinated a large quantity of vegetable plants for islanders to grow-on.  We have established the principle of achieving production in the greenhouses, but in the future it will be necessary to work hard to keep the momentum going to achieve maximum production all through the year.

 A full, busy and productive greenhouse in the winter of 2017

In the last two years there have been two incidents in which the entire consignment of imported fruit and vegetables coming to the island shop had to be dumped.  This highlights the necessity, for strategic reasons, of the island becoming as self-sufficient as possible.  My Final Report illustrates a range of steps that can be taken to improve agricultural production on Tristan.  This includes a proposal for the recycling of ground crayfish shells from the factory, which would undoubtedly help crop and grass production.

Bee and I would like to thank you, the people of Tristan, for your exceptional hospitality and kindness to us during our time on the island.  Best of luck for the future.

Alasdair Wyllie – Agriculture Adviser and Editor of TDC Farming News


In the last few weeks a few people have asked me where the “Comments” section has gone.

I am not sure exactly where it has gone – but I am pleased to report that it has indeed gone.  With that out of the way, I will be able to continue writing and publishing relevent posts, without having to spend all my time deleting spam!

I have received a number of very interesting comments in the last two years, particularly from people who themselves were on the island years ago, and from people whom Bee and I know from other stages of our lives.  We will always be interested to hear from our friends from the past, on our usual email addresses.  If, however, you are ‘coming in from the outside’, I should now be able to receive comments on a new email address that I have opened for the purpose – penguins.potatoes AT gmail.com.   I may perhaps publish an occasional post that is simply an abstract of comments received.

Let’s hope that these steps have enabled me to shake off the scourge of the spammer!

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

The Governor Visits Tristan

In the early days of January this year, we had a visit from the RMS St. Helena. This vessel also visited Tristan in April 2016. In both cases the itinerary was Cape Town to Tristan da Cunha to St. Helena, and the Royal Mail Ship has made the journey many times in the past. The 2016 visit was supposed to be the last such journey, on account of the new airport on St. Helena making the vessel redundant. However, the well recorded problems with the airport resulted in the ship making another last voyage this year.

RMS Saint Helena at anchor off Tristan

On both the 2016 voyage and the 2018 voyage, there was one particular passenger. In 2016, Lisa Phillips was able to set foot on Tristan for only a couple of hours, her time being limited because of weather conditions. At that time she was Governor Designate, on her way to be sworn in as Governor of the British Overseas Territory known as ‘St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha’. This year she arrived on Tristan as Governor.

The Governor arrives at Tristan harbour, with a fishing boat behind

Ever since 1659, there has been a British Governor on St. Helena. To start with, and until 1834, the Governor was appointed by the East India Company, but since then the appointment has been made by the British Crown. Today, the Governor is appointed by the British monarch on the advice of Her Majesty’s Government. Meanwhile, on Tristan da Cunha, from the time of the settlement of the island in 1812 governance was carried out by the people of Tristan themselves, with the unofficial role of governor being taken by visiting clergy men who often stayed on Tristan for a number of years. This prevailed on Tristan until 1950, when for the first time an Administrator was appointed who worked under the direction of the Governor on St. Helena. This level of delegation is essential when you consider that 1350 miles of ocean separates St. Helena from Tristan, and in another direction Ascension Island is 1295 miles away from St. Helena.

The British Overseas Territories consist of 14 separate colonies, including Gibraltar, the Pitcairn Islands, The British Pacific Islands, and the Falkland Islands. Each of them has a Governor, who is the de facto Head of State.

Lisa Phillips is the 68th Governor of St. Helena, and the first female in that position.

It is with that background that the people of Tristan were looking forward to the forthcoming visit of their Governor. Preparations were made for a full 3-day 2-night visit, with a business and social programme that included a meeting with the Island Council and visits to all the places of importance, including the school, the new hospital, the old thatched house and the 1961 volcano, and with a number of receptions, lunches, a community dance, and so on.

On the island of Tristan da Cunha, no planning can be set in stone thanks to the uncertainties of the weather and the precariousness of the harbour, and as the planned arrival day approached and the weather forecast looked poor, some contingency programmes were arranged. The ship arrived on the 3rd, as planned, but it was not possible to get passengers off. The following day, the weather and sea state had improved but it was still marginal to be able to get passengers off the ship. The decision was made that the only people who would be allowed to come ashore would be the people stopping on the island, and the Governor. Around 150 passengers had to stay on the ship, in case worsening sea conditions prevented them getting back on board. So, in effect the Governor’s visit started around 10.00 in the morning, and her programme on that first day had to be severely modified and flexible – sea conditions were constantly monitored to make sure that she could get back on the ship and not be abandoned on Tristan!

The Governor prepares to leave Tristan, a RIB taking her out to the St. Helena

The Governor presided over a meeting with the Island Council, and she visited the school and Aunt Ellen, at 99 the oldest islander. In the afternoon, we were able to take her out west, to view all the damage from the land slips and particularly to view the damage to all the Patches at Red Body Hill. We also discussed many of the issues to do with the cattle and the overgrazing. During this part of the visit we had a radio message – the Governor had to be at the harbour by 4.00 pm, so we cut short her visit to the farming areas and delivered her quickly to the new hospital for her final visit of the day.

Her Excellency Lisa Phillips, CBE, Governor of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, presides over the meeting of the Island Council

The following day there was no possibility of anyone landing at the harbour, and the ship stayed in the lee of nearby Nightingale Island to see if conditions would improve. Meanwhile, the captain of the RMS was in contact with the operators of the vessel to see if the ship’s schedule could be modified the following day, to allow for a much later departure than had originally been planned.

The weather and sea conditions did improve, and the following day the Governor made it ashore again, as did the majority of passengers that were on the ship. This was a chance for the Governor to catch up on some of the duties that had been cut from her programme two days earlier. It was also a chance for many of the people from St. Helena (“Saints” as they are called) to renew old friendships on Tristan – the social links between the two islands are well established, and go well beyond matters of governance.

There is no doubt that the visit from the Governor was of great importance, partly because of the way in which this facilitated and enhanced numerous areas of understanding. This is reflected in the following statement that Lisa Phillips sent me for this article:-

“I was concerned to see some of the damage done following recent landslips and floods.  I deeply appreciate the way the community dealt with this demonstrating their usual pragmatism and dedication.  It is greatly to their credit that the road was made passable and that the potato patches were salvaged as much as they could be.  I was also interested to hear about the plans to improve pasture and reduce cattle going forward.  These are difficult but necessary decisions but I was glad to hear that there was commitment to protect resources for future generations.  I was struck by the way the Tristan da Cunha community comes together to consider what is best going into the future in the areas of agriculture, livestock, livelihoods etc.  As Governor of Tristan da Cunha I am committed to supporting decision making on island”

The massive landslip, as seen by Lisa on her visit

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

A Week On Tristan

It would be easy to look at Tristan da Cunha from the outside, and to think “Not much can happen there”. That assumption would be easy – and entirely incorrect! Partly because of the difficulty of getting people and goods on and off the island, it is a busy place!

Some details of a recent one week period might illustrate how busy it can be.

On Monday, after a passage of nine days, we had the arrival of the Baltic Trader. This ship has been very well known on Tristan for a number of years, but this time she arrived here for her last ever voyage to the island, having been sold to a buyer in the northern hemisphere – an old boat resplendent in her new paint! The Baltic Trader was commissioned to do one extra trip to Tristan; she carried over 800 tonnes of freight, two new bulls, one new puppy, and a French visitor from the tiny island of Ushant.

The Baltic Trader, with raft alongside. Photo – Bernard Pronost

The arrival of the bulls was the culmination of nearly a year’s work. Although we carried out a cattle breeding AI programme at the beginning of this year, it will be about two years before any bull calf bred from this programme will be old enough to take on their breeding duties with the island herd. The existing bulls on the island have been here for too long, and the percentage risk of inbreeding increases with every year. So we brought in two new Aberdeen Angus bulls from South Africa.

The new bulls travelled in a specially modified shipping container. Nine days at sea, which included some quite rough weather, must have been quite unsettling for them, but nothing to compare with the experience of coming ashore, when in worsening conditions on Monday afternoon they were craned off the ship and onto the raft, then in the harbour they were craned off the raft and onto the awaiting lorry, and finally they were craned off the lorry and placed in their initial field. They emerged from the container suffering from the effects of their sea voyage, and one in particular was quite bad tempered. We put a “Beware of the bulls” sign on the gate, and notices up on all the boards urging people to be very careful until the bulls were more settled.

Sign on the gate, with the two new bulls in the background

On Tuesday, wind conditions had picked up and there was too much swell coming into the harbour for unloading to continue. Bee had offered to take the Man from Ushant for a walk, to help get rid of his ‘cabin fever’. They went to Pigbite, and on the way back they saw a number of South Atlantic Fur Seals and they visited the nest of a Northern Rockhopper penguin, with chick. They were quite close to the Harbour when they saw two unusual looking penguins coming ashore. Some very good pictures were taken of these new arrivals, and we had a measure of excitement while they were identified. First opinions suggested Macaroni Penguins, which are in the Field Guide of Tristan as being rare occasional visitors. This opinion, from world penguin experts, evolved to them being Southern Rockhoppers, which was massively exciting because these have never before been seen on Tristan. But – the excitement was short-lived, they were eventually identified as being sub-adult Northern Rockhoppers!

Northern Rockhopper Penguins

There was some excitement also on Tuesday with the superyacht Enigma, which passed close to Tristan on her way from Cape Town to Brazil.

On Wednesday, routine work resumed because the harbour remained inaccessible. One task undertaken by a Public Works team was the smartening up of the flagpole area outside the Prince Philip Hall – the grass was cut, the stones marking the border were painted and re-aligned, and all looked great ready for the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, in three days time.

On Thursday morning, Tristan da Cunha was once again made famous on the world stage. Three schoolgirls had left the island a couple of months earlier to attend a school in England to do their A-Levels. The girls had a day off from their studies to attend the British Museum, where they were interviewed by the BBC on the 200-year anniversary of the signing of William Glass’ main constitutional paper, called the Constitutional Agreement. The girls managed extraordinarily well in front the cameras, and the whole island was hugely proud to see their children represent Tristan so competently and with such charm when the piece was screened on Breakfast Today.

The weather conditions had greatly improved. Because the ship was carrying so much cargo, and because the weather forecast looked to be bad from Tuesday onwards, unloading was started, and a fishing day was also declared. It is quite unusual for unloading and fishing to be done on the same day. But – with 800 tonnes of cargo to unload from the ship and a worsening weather forecast for after the weekend, together with the need to catch up on what has been a poor fishing season because of months of bad weather, the difficult decision to run both operations was made.

On Thursday evening, the factory siren sounded and Bee went down as usual to join the team of ladies who work on the processing of the crayfish. Always on fishing days there is a long evening shift to start the process of handling the crayfish, and this process is generally continued in long shifts on the following two or three days. It is a very busy time for over twenty of the island ladies (and Bee), many of whom are pensioners.

On Friday, there was no fishing, but the unloading operation went ahead at full speed. For the most part, the cargo being unloaded was general cargo, such as crated supplies for the Island Store. This was exciting – it also included supplies from the UK. Unloading is generally an ‘all hands day’, – all able-bodied people join in the task of bringing the cargo up from the harbour, unpacking it from the crates, and taking part on a chain of bodies to get the things stacked in the store behind the shop. In the case of the goods from the UK, packages of all shapes and sizes were placed in separate piles for individuals and for Departments. These were all measured and signed for, in order for the shipping costs to be apportioned. The unloading team worked right on until after 7.30 that night. We ourselves received two boxes of things sent by family members in the UK, as well as a new battery for my VHF radio and a DVD course in Excel – all items much needed and eagerly awaited! We also received a consignment of vegetable seeds from the UK – which were of such high priority that many of them were sown in the greenhouse the following day.

The unloading operation continued on the Saturday, largely bringing in load after load of building materials for the construction of Dolosses, those concrete structures that are used for harbour wall protection around the world. Then there was news that we were waiting for – the Agriculture Department’s new Polaris Ranger was on a raft coming from the ship. This vehicle had taken nearly nine months to arrive from the UK, thanks partly to some obstructions from Customs in Cape Town.

The Polaris Ranger immediately put into service, to transport vegetables to the shop

On Sunday, there was a Remberance Service in the Catholic church – the two churches hold this service in alternate years. Some of the school children had gone round the houses in the previous days, collecting flowers for the making of a wonderful community-effort wreath. At the same time, in the race against the arrival of the bad weather, unloading continued throughout Sunday, and the ship was finally empty by Sunday night.

The flagpole and wreaths, outside the Prince Philip Hall

On Monday, there was activity everywhere as a result of the events of the last few days. In the shop, a mountain of goods had to be sorted and shelved, and the shop itself was closed from 10.00 in the morning so that staff could get the place sorted out. I took advantage of the calm weather to check and underseal the new Polaris, to help protect it from the very corrosive atmosphere. Backloading of the ship took place as quickly as possible, the factory cold stores being emptied of many tons of packed, frozen crayfish, destined for markets in Europe, Japan and Australia. Sometimes, just sometimes, things go better than anticipated, and at very short notice it was announced that the Baltic Trader was to leave in fifteen minutes time! At 12.00 the Harbour saw our friend from Ushant sharing last-minute photographs from his laptop, and one of the Post Office staff desperately sellotaping up packages to get them into a post bag and onto the raft, before the raft left two minutes later.

One casualty of the fact that everyone was very fully occupied on Friday, was that an important Island Council meeting had to be postponed. The crucially important issue on the agenda was the question of reducing cattle numbers, in order to take control of the overgrazing on the island. It was my job to be fully prepared for this meeting, but I had to wait for the re-arranged meeting for it to be discussed and decided upon. Because of this, I will keep my readers waiting for the eventual news on this major issue!

Later that day I came back into our house to find firstly that we had a working WiFi, for the first time in about two months, and secondly to find a big bag of eggs that had been dropped off for us – the next job was to find out who had kindly delivered the eggs!

After a week of intense activity, the normal routines of daily life resumed. For the busy Tristan islanders, it was good to have time to be able to go back to tending their potato patches and doing the many odd jobs that come up on a daily basis, in addition to their Government jobs.

Transport on Tristan

Foot transport has always been the mainstay of transport on Tristan. In particular, there are not many routes for getting up on to the Base (the high ground at the top of the coastal escarpment, which runs from around 2,000 feet to the Peak at 6,760 feet) and the routes that there are can be quite hazardous. In some cases ropes have been tied to the rocks to help the climber. In all cases motor transport, even a trials bike, is out of the question to access these upland areas.

Strong boots – the mainstay of transport on the island!

What is remarkable is the frequency that young islanders journey up onto the Base, often taking up fencing materials on their backs or bringing down a sheep carcass. In the age range of 15 to 45, a very large proportion of island men travel up to the Base as a matter of course.

In days gone by, seemingly, men often walked over to Sandy Beach, largely because it was possible to grow things there that would have been impossible on the Settlement Plain. This meant a climb to 2,000 feet, a traverse of about 6 miles along really difficult terrain, and a descent of 2,000 feet – then the return journey at the end of the working day!

Today, there is one interesting element to the amount of walking that we all have to do, which is to do with the abrasive nature of the volcanic grit that we walk on, and that is often used as a component of the concrete roads. In less than a year, I have almost worn away the soles of a pair of high-quality walking boots!

When sea conditions permitted, the journey to places around the coast was much easier by longboat. These boats were all made on the island. They were propelled by oar and by lug sail, and they became the normal means of transport from the Settlement, for example taking expeditions to Nightingale to collect penguin eggs (and the Little Petrel that is taken for meat), and to sail out to passing ships to barter local produce of meat, potatoes and woollen goods in exchange for fresh fruit and a wide range of other goods. These longboats were very seaworthy, but they were often handled in quite treacherous conditions, and disasters and loss of life were not unknown. It is about 15 years since the last longboat put to sea.

Some of the old, unused longboats – witness to days gone by.

From the Settlement to the Potato Patches is a distance of about 2 ½ miles. For over a hundred and fifty years donkeys and ox-carts were used for this journey, taking humans, tools and materials out and bringing crops back. Gradually these sustainable means of transport died out. There are now just 11 donkeys remaining, living a life of retirement among the cattle on the settlement plain. These donkeys are not a breeding herd – all the males have been castrated – and in a sense it could be argued that they take feed from the cattle, they serve no purpose, and that they should be put down. Indeed this has been discussed from time to time, over the years. It says something for the traditional and kind-hearted nature of the Tristan islanders that they always come up with the sentiment of “Let the donkeys be to enjoy their retirement”.

Some of the retired donkeys, beside a quite appropriate sign!

The evolution of transport on the island went from donkeys and ox carts to small tractors and trailers. Surprisingly, I have been able to find no evidence for ‘the little grey Fergie’ (TE20) being on Tristan, but most certainly the successors to the TE20, known as the MF 35 and then the MF 135, were used as work-horses for transport on the island, particularly for shared communal transport to and from the Potato Patches. These tractors, dating from the 1960’s, are still to be found, and are still working. Indeed, until ten days ago the only working tractor owned by the Agriculture Department was a MF135 – to our great relief we have now taken delivery of a larger 4WD MF268, which will make the world of difference to the productivity of the Department. Other Departments also have tractors for general light haulage duties, and it is a great tribute to the design and construction of the little tractors from the 1960’s that any of them are still running at all. None of them are fully functional, with the hydraulic systems and controls being the most frequent casualties.

Our old Massey Ferguson 135 tractor – still struggling on!

Individually-owned transport was the natural successor to the community-owned tractors. There is always the temptation for private buyers to import cheap second-hand vehicles, which are almost by definition approaching the end of their serviceable lives. As a result, there are several ‘dead’ vehicles around the settlement, vehicles that by any standards are beyond the end of their lives.   This raises a question, which is “Is there any form of MOT test for vehicles on the island?”. The answer is “Yes”! No-one would pretend that the MOT test on Tristan is in any way similar to the MOT test in the outside world. But it does test and insist upon the main safety elements that are of relevance to driving on Tristan.

The vast majority of privately owned vehicles on the island are what could be called heavy four-wheel-drive vehicles, including all the main UK and Japanese makes. There are many Land Rover Defenders, as well as Discoveries, Range Rovers and Freelanders. Unfortunately, Defenders are well-known for rusting, and because of the salt-laden air rust is a serious problem on the island for all vehicles. It makes me glad that I had my own Defender undersealed, to better withstand the inclement weather in Scotland! In total, there are now over 50 heavy vehicles on Tristan, mainly heavy four-wheel-drive models.

Most families that own a 4WD vehicle also own a motorbike. This makes very good sense, because there are many functions for which a motorbike could be thought of as being perfect, whereas a 4WD would be overkill for some journeys. There is a size limit of 250cc for motorbikes, which is quite big enough for the essential needs of personal transport. There are some 50 motorbikes on the island. In general the bikes are ridden in a very moderate and responsible way, and one of my more remarkable observations is that I have never seen a motorbike or scooter being ridden without the rider (and passenger) wearing a crash helmet. I myself have just taken delivery of my own motorbike, so at last I can get around the farming areas that I need to see on a regular basis.

My own bike, bought second-hand from Cape Town. Independence at last!

No article on transport on Tristan would be complete without mention of the occasional use of a helicopter on the island. We have an annual visit from the South African vessel SA Agulhas 2, which carries a helicopter, and there is the occasional visit of a Royal Navy boat also with a helicopter on board. When visibility conditions permit, some flying time is sometimes made available to the island, and it is a great relief for the islanders to have fencing materials transported up to the Base to save their back-breaking and knee-wrecking journeys carrying up these heavy loads.   I hope to follow up with more details of the visits of the Agulhas in later articles.

A most welcome visitor! Quite the best way to get around – but seldom available. The mother-ship SA Agulhas 2 is in the background.

There is no perfect solution to the island’s transport problems. The longest one-way journey is around three miles, and fuel is expensive in relation to the very low wages. But people do have a need to get ‘out West’, to look after their sheep and cattle and, particularly, to tend their potato patches. There is a bus service that makes several journeys to the Patches every day, but this is largely patronised by the pensioners. For many people, their busy lives dictate the need for their own vehicle, so that they can come and go when they please.

The old bus, waiting just outside the Albatros, the island’s pub.

TDC Farming News

As you will find in any small community, it is quite easy here on Tristan for rumours and incorrect information to start circulating. In facing up to the reality of the situation, I have just put out a ‘Farming News’ paper, which has gone down exceptionally well. It gives folk a ‘from the horse’s mouth’ idea as to what we are trying to do, and I have had a number of people coming along with seeds for us to propagate. This is what I put out in the community:-

TDC Farming News                      Issue 1                          October 2017

The Department of Agriculture is aiming to publish a newsletter like this one from time to time. If anyone would like us to comment on any specific farming topic, please let us know.

Greenhouses and Mission Gardens

In recent months we have been able to make considerable progress on production in these garden areas. As well as growing plants that will produce food crops for sale, such as tomatoes, we are also growing plants that will end up being sold in the Agri Shop. These plants fall into three categories – indoor ornamental plants, outdoor ornamental plants, and plants for food production – all this is part of our mission to supply a service to the community. The thinking behind the production of vegetable plants for sale is that we have the facilities and skills to produce a range of strong, healthy plants that can be transplanted into peoples’ gardens when they are big enough to be able to withstand the many insects that are waiting to attack seedlings, and people will probably like being able to ‘kick start’ their own vegetable production without the risk of loosing small vulnerable seedlings.

The recent sale of tomato plants has been a big success. We hope to be able to follow up with cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli plants very soon. Keep an eye open for our notices as to what is coming into the shop. If anyone would like us to propagate any particular plants in the greenhouse, do please let us know.

Lime and Fertiliser

You may have noticed our team busy spreading fertiliser and lime in some of the pasture areas. This is part of an ambitious long-term programme to improve the grass production on the island, in order to help increase the feed available for the cattle.

Lime is being applied in order to raise the pH of the soil. A low pH means acid soil, and grass grows badly on ground that is acid. A pH of 6.5 to 7.0 is ideal for productive grasses, but many of the pastures are currently below 5.5.

I have been asked whether there is any problem with cattle grazing land that has been recently fertilised or limed. The fertiliser that we are using at present is prilled urea, specifically adding nitrogen. In some countries both urea and lime is deliberately added to cattle feed, and there will be no problem with cattle grazing on land that has been recently limed or fertilised with urea.


 The very good news is that we are soon due to take delivery of two new bulls from South Africa. These are both Aberdeen Angus, one being a black Angus and the other a red Angus. We expect that these will be with us in time for the 2018 breeding season.

These two bulls will be key in improving the cattle blood-lines on the island. In the coming two months we should see the new calves born from the recent AI programme, and we look forward to seeing whether any cross-bred bull calves produced from AI are good enough to select for breeding in the future. In the meantime, with the new bulls quality natural breeding will be assured.

Ear Tags

 Some months ago the decision was made to identify cattle using ear tags, which will be pivotal to us being able to keep proper records, and for the identity of animals being followed from birth to death. Any people who watch Countryfile will be familiar with this sort of ear tag. The ear tags have now arrived on the island.

Each animal will be tagged twice, with a large tag on one side and a little button tag on the other side, both tags displaying the same number which will be the ID of the animal.

It is not intended that the ear tags will necessarily replace the traditional system of ear marking – it will be up to the individual owner to choose whether to ear-mark his calves as well, or whether to rely on the ID provided by the ear tags. We will of course be keeping a detailed record of each ear tag number, so that for example in the event that an animal is given or sold by one owner to another, the records will be updated to show the new owner.

It will take some time before we are able to obtain full benefit from the ear tag system. For example, once calves that are as yet unborn are tagged and fully mature the records that can then be referred to will be invaluable for the community and for the individual owner.

New Tractor

We are very pleased to be able to report that we have taken delivery of a new 4WD tractor, and this machine has now been commissioned and put into service.

Being brand new, this machine has the whole of its working life ahead of it. We feel that the tractor is a very sound investment that will play a key role in the important farming developments that are programmed. The tractor is a Massey Ferguson, and the controls are largely the same as the old 135’s and 240’s that are on the island, and are therefore familiar to our staff.

Livestock Mineral Deficiencies

Our visiting vet, Joe Hollins, has done some very interesting work by collating and analysing the results of blood and tissue samples taken from island livestock over a number of years

Joe has identified that there are substantial mineral deficiencies that are having a negative effect on the health of the livestock.

As a result, a consignment of salt / mineral blocks has been ordered and now received and distributed, and we are working through the herd to administer mineral boluses (stomach pills).

Alasdair Wyllie – Agricultural Adviser and Editor of TDC Farming News

Fundamentals of Farming on Tristan da Cunha

Tristan da Cunha is a tiny volcanic island deep in the South Atlantic, at around 37o south. The nearest land is Cape Town, some 1,600 miles to the east. It has a population of 260 people. Tristan was first occupied by a British garrison in 1816, and today it is one of the British Overseas Territories. In 1961 the island was evacuated because of the volcano coming to life, the population spending 18 months in Britain until they were able to return. The island is known as being the most remote inhabited island in the world.

Tristan from the sea

In November 2016 I travelled out to Tristan to take up a 2-year contract as Agricultural Adviser to the Government of Tristan da Cunha. The central objective was the increase of island food production, for strategic and economic reasons. Technical advice and advocacy are the two pillars of my work here.

The long-existing agricultural enterprises are cattle, sheep and potatoes, plus some vegetables and a little fruit. There is much improvement to be made in all these enterprises. My brief also included the promotion of some quite fanciful ideas, including for example the commercial development of tea, and truffle production. I am pleased to be able to report that I have had agreement on the abandonment of these peripheral ideas, and we are concentrating on a ‘back to basics’ approach in the interests of food security and sustainability.

Cattle on the western Settlement Plain – Inaccessible Island behind

The main problems being faced can be categorised as being Logistical, Technical, Climatic and Cultural. The Cultural issues have developed as a result of the community on the island having very little contact with the outside world for most of its 200 year existence. Whereas in the early days the island was visited by whalers and seal hunters, these visits died out as a result of over exploitation of these natural resources, and in some years not a single ship visited. Because of the isolation, the spread and adoption of new ideas is naturally very restricted.

The climate can be described as temperate maritime, but this generalisation does not convey the day-to-day reality of the weather and of the way in which the weather plays a pivotal part in limiting farming options. Summer temperatures can range from 16 to 28oC, and although the climate is wet there can be prolonged dry spells in the summer. Winter temperatures range from 4 to 16o. There is great variety in the weather, with sometimes a few spring-like days in the middle of winter, and vice versa. However, one of the most significant weather elements is the wind; at any time of the year the island can have 5 or 6 days in which storm-force winds blow without a break, most often accompanied by heavy rain. Rains in the last 12 months have resulted in some serious flood damage, a combination of erosion and alluvial deposits being washed down from the high ground accounting for the loss of some 10% of the available pasture land, which previously amounted to around 400 hectares. Most crops need shelter from the wind to survive.

The logistical problems all relate to the extreme remoteness of the island. There is no airport, and only some 8 visiting cargo ships each year. The ships come from Cape Town, with a crossing time ranging from 6 to 15 days. These bare facts point to one of the main problem areas, which is that it takes a very long time for orders placed to arrive on the island. This impacts on obtaining, for example, machinery spares, medicines and other urgent supplies – indeed some orders originating in the UK can take more than 9 months to arrive. The price of everything coming to the island is augmented by shipping costs, and as may be imagined there has developed a strong ‘make do and mend’ attitude.

The very limited land area is generally poor, boulder-strewn ground which is not ploughable. This has become ‘pasture’ by the colonisation of kikuyu grass which of course is low in production and low in digestibility, as well as a range of other low performing weed grasses. As with most soils of volcanic origin, the soil pH is very low – 5.2 to 5.8. No lime has been applied since the early 1970’s. We now have lime ordered and received, and we have started lime spreading, as the beginning of a programme which should be repeated annually if funds permit. We also aim to reseed some of the pasture land; this will be done by spraying off the surface vegetation with glyphosate, and using a tined pneumatic seeder to sow a mixture of grasses that has been prepared for these conditions by a specialist seedsman in Scotland. The seeded surface will be rolled using a home-made roller made of two written-off gas cylinders filled with concrete.

During the winter months, the livestock that are dependent on the grazing have a hard time. In round figures we have a total herd of 420 single-suckled cows and followers, and around 800 sheep. There is no grass conservation, and it is illegal to bring in hay because of the high risk of bringing in hitch-hikers, both alien plants and alien insects. The worst year for the cattle was in 1906, when numbers had been allowed to climb to around 700, and a hard winter resulted in 364 deaths.

The sheep tend to have an easier time than the cattle do, because they are able to graze the upland areas where there is much less grazing competition. Sheep are kept primarily for meat, but the wool is also important. There is a significant cottage industry of carding, spinning and knitting, with a range of quality woollen items being sent to customers around the world.

All activity on shearing day

We managed to do an AI programme with the cattle last February, and if all goes well we hope to introduce new blood into the sheep flock next year. Nothing is ever simple, and both cattle and sheep are privately owned by individual families on quota systems. The management decisions that would be relatively easy with a co-operative or with an owning company, for example to reduce the herd size in order to reduce overgrazing, are exceptionally difficult here. Although there seems to be increasing awareness of the need to reduce stock numbers, the suggestions that have been made of meaningful changes to how things are done have not met with agreement from the islanders themselves.

In small, enclosed garden areas there is some production of vegetables, and there are two home-made greenhouses that are used for the propagation of seedlings and for the production of tomatoes and cucumbers. Garden areas have to be sheltered from the wind, and New Zealand flax is extensively used for wind breaks. The climate is such that some crops, notably kale and cabbage, will grow throughout the year. There is some advantage in growing crops in the winter months because then there are no damaging insects. There are two particular insect pests that cause great damage in the summer months – these are the diamond backed moth in the outside areas and the whitefly in the greenhouses. These are both alien species that arrived on the island in recent years, but they have no predators here – no predating insects, no hedgehogs, no insect-eating birds. As a result these two pest species can rapidly multiply out of control, particularly since they arrived here with well developed resistance to insecticides.

Inside the greenhouse used for propagation
Young tomato plants growing in the ‘top greenhouse’

Potatoes have been grown on the island since the arrival of the first settlers. They are grown in small wall-enclosed areas (‘The Potato Patches’) that closely resemble the ‘kale yards’ that are to be found in the Orkney Islands and in the Outer Hebrides. Each family has a number of Patches, where they grow their own crop. It would surprise all potato-growing farmers around the world to know that the potatoes are grown on the same ground year after year, with no rotation, but for some reason this gives reasonable results here on Tristan. There are good years and not-so-good years, but in a good year surplus potatoes are sent off to St Helena, as part of a good-will exercise. There seems to be a degree of vulnerability in growing potatoes with no rotation, and in order to try and develop the protocol for growing an alternative carbohydrate crop we are about to try cultivating sweet potatoes, which of course are not susceptible to the same pests and diseases as the standard potato.

One group of Potato Patches