Tristan da Cunha and the UK share a big problem


“Tristan da Cunha and the United Kingdom both have a major problem of self sufficiency”.  This statement may seem to be bizarre, far-fetched or curious, but if we look at some of the facts and figures we can see that it is correct and not an exaggeration.

For anyone who knows about the island it would not be a big surprise to learn that Tristan does indeed have problems of self sufficiency.  This is a tiny dot of a volcanic island, deep in the south Atlantic and some 1600 miles away from its nearest port of Cape Town.  There are many factors that all contribute to it being difficult to produce a range of food crops on the island, and so a very large proportion of all the food consumed on the island has to be supplied through Cape Town.   Also, fuel and medical supplies all have to be imported and if the supply chain is compromised the lack of these essential goods could become critical.  As far as the UK is concerned, in spite of having one of the most advanced and capable agricultural systems in the world there has been a trend towards policy decision-making that has turned its back on the strategic and economic importance of the country producing its own food.  As a result of these policies, spearheaded by Tony Blair when he was in power, the country’s self-sufficiency in food has dropped from 78% in 1984 to just 60% today.  (This is calculated from a net import figure – imports less exports, and includes products that do not come to the table, such as livestock feed)

Tristan cattle – on a good day!

On Tristan, there are very few items that can be thought of as being available at a self-sufficient level.  These are limited to fresh water, fish, mutton, beef and potatoes.  Caution needs to be exercised when considering potatoes, because the annual crop is quite precarious.  The crop is grown year after year on the same ground and naturally there is a build-up of diseases and soil-borne pathogens.  Regrettably, a few years ago there were imports of seed potatoes from South Africa that were far from being disease-free, and in some cases yields from the ‘new seed’ were lower than yields from the islanders’ own saved seed potatoes.  There is always the risk of total crop failure, and when it is considered that the potato crop is the only source of island-produced carbohydrate a crop failure could be disastrous.

The potato patches

In days gone by the people of Tristan da Cunha were successful in being virtually self-sufficient in foodstuffs, even having a surplus that they sold or bartered to passing ships.  Since then the production of fruit and vegetables has greatly declined, particularly in recent years.  One of the factors for this decline in food production, ironically, has been the development of the fishing industry on the island.  This industry has resulted in eight ships a year now travelling from Cape Town to collect the catch, and it has resulted in the island having an income from the crayfish with which it can import a wide range of consumer goods, including fruit and vegetables.  The import of these consumer goods has taken away from the absolute need to be self sufficient.  As a result, individual gardens have largely fallen out of production and have been invaded by the New Zealand flax that makes such a good wind-break – but such a bad invasive weed.

Vegetable production is difficult on Tristan – there are many factors that conspire to frustrate the would-be grower, including very harsh weather conditions and a wide range of slugs and insect pests that have arrived on the island and that have few if any predators.  Also, it is not always realised that proper production can only be achieved with an active programme of care, including pruning, weed control, and spraying when appropriate.  It is unsurprising therefore that many islanders now prefer to buy from the shop using their earnings that originate, essentially, from the sale of crayfish (“Tristan lobsters”)  This is all well and good when conditions are normal, but the island risks a food security emergency when, as in 2020, the world is thrown into unusual circumstances by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Edinburgh. The island is dependent on imports carried by two deep-sea fishing boats

Around the time that the last ship arrived at Tristan, in late March, Cape Town was closing its doors to ships going in and out of the port, and to the supply of alcohol, fruit and vegetables.  It became apparent on Tristan that the supply chain was going to be badly affected, and with great foresight the Island Council put in place a rationing system for essential foodstuffs.  Even so, I understand that the shop warehouse ran out of rice, pasta and beer, and supplies of toilet rolls, milk, wine and other alcohols became perilously low.  The next ship to make the journey, the Edinburgh, had its departure delayed several times, and it did not arrive at Tristan until 30 June.  Even then the long-awaited stores could not be unloaded because of the sea conditions, and there were delays of 8 days and then 9 days while the ship sheltered from the weather.  It was perhaps just as well that no fresh fruit and vegetables had been shipped, because it is probable that it would have all have become rotten and have to be dumped.  Meanwhile, on another element of the same Covid 19 problem, the global marketing of the Tristan Lobster became difficult, and the island could no longer budget for the same income as before.

Empty shelves in the shop

Even now, at the beginning of September, the supply chain problem remains.  The next ship due to come out from Cape Town was due to leave on the 20th or 21st of August, but delays connected with the lockdown in South Africa have meant that the actual departure date has still not been fixed.

It is clear that the island has real problems of self sufficiency and of food security, and these problems have been highlighted and exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.  One problem is that there is inevitably a considerable delay between an islander deciding to grow more of his own food, and actually being able to harvest his produce.  It would take several years before an island population with a new-found interest in developing its self sufficiency could develop its garden land for efficient vegetable production.  In order to improve the island capacity to produce its own vegetables, a couple of years ago it was organised to set up a seed-bank, so that seeds are permanently available to the islanders – unfortunately the seed-bank was never established and it is understood that there are no vegetable seeds to be found on the island.  Seeds must be thought of as the beginning of the production process.

If we consider the UK, how can we possibly compare a country with a population of 66.65 million people, and the third largest economy of the world, with a tiny dot of an island in the Southern Ocean with a population of 245 souls?  The problems of self sufficiency in the UK are not on the same scale as they are on Tristan, and on the face of it there are no problems of food security.  (However, we are seeing unstable and uncertain times, and nothing can be ruled out)

In the last 40 years the UK has given away a large proportion of its agricultural turnover, by the nation buying elsewhere.  Now, only 50% of the food that is eaten is home produced, with as much as 30% now produced in the EU. The facts behind these figures make gloomy reading.  Over half of our vegetables are now imported, and over 300,000 tonnes of pasta a year are imported, 80% of which comes from Italy.  Even 20% of our cheese and our beef is imported instead of being home produced.  1.2 million tonnes of potatoes are imported every year, as are 55% of the tomatoes we eat.  We import 476,000 tonnes of apples every year, and 138,000 tonnes of pears.  All of these, apart from pasta, are commodities that we can (and used to) produce ourselves.  So, like Tristan da Cunha, our level of self-sufficiency has declined since the last war.

The situation with our apple industry is a typical example.  France took huge EU subsidies to develop vast industrial-scale apple plantations in south west France.  Our shops bought these low-cost apples, our shoppers were largely only presented with imported fruit, and the UK apple industry of Kent and Hereford was destroyed.

Apart from the political disregard for the strategic importance of our agriculture, and hence our self sufficiency, a number of other factors have come into play.  A large number of immigrants have come into the country, bringing with them a taste for a range of foods that cannot be produced in the country.  Our own interest in exotic foods has increased, partly triggered by a very high level of foreign travel.  In an increasingly affluent society, we no longer like to be restricted to fruit and vegetables ‘in season’, but we are prepared to pay for them 12 months of the year.  At the same time city centre and high-rise housing has been giving way to housing estates built on prime agricultural land, and increasingly the public has been developing the opinion that the countryside is for recreation rather than for food production.   We even have ill-informed pressure groups who believe that the country should be covered with trees in order to achieve carbon capture and to save the planet – they either do not know or they choose to ignore the fact that well-managed intensive arable land captures 5 times more carbon than trees, by means of the soil being boosted with organic matter (humus)

Three potato grow-bags on the pavement in Callander

We have seen that the coronavirus pandemic has changed the situation in Tristan da Cunha, and in the same way the UK is experiencing some changes.  In the last five months there has been an increasing interest in home-produced products, and some of the supermarkets are increasing to launch promotions based on how much they obtain foods from within the UK.  At the same time, there is a percentage of shoppers who are more and more discerning – they no longer want to be fobbed off by, for example, beef that is produced in the USA, Poland and elsewhere to far lower standards than the standards that are to be found on British farms (this is not blind patriotism, it is based on scientific fact).  Another trend during lockdown has been the increased interest in people growing their own produce.  If every household in the country set up three potato growing bags outside their houses, around 180,000 tonnes of potatoes would be produced every year!  Clearly this is fanciful and could never happen, but it illustrates the potential for household production.  In our garden in Scotland we have produced some 18 different species of vegetables and herbs – that is all stuff that does not have to be imported.

First picking of our windowsill chilis







Tristan, Coronavirus and Self-sufficiency

One of the great things about life on an island is that it is relatively easy to isolate it from the outside world.  In the case of Tristan da Cunha, being the world’s most remote inhabited island, 1600 miles of ocean to the nearest land mass provides a buffer zone which, if fully taken advantage of by controlling shipping and cargoes, is almost impossible for diseases to cross.

My second article on this web site was called Reflections from Cape Town, published on 11 November 2016.  At that time I was on my way out to Tristan, to take up an appointment as Agriculture Adviser.  Things that I discussed in that article included the implications for the management of cattle and sheep for an island having very little contact with the outside world, particularly with regard to preventing the arrival of diseases from other countries.  A large part of my work on the island focussed on minimising the risk of importing diseases.  As a remote island, Tristan has a great advantage in being largely disease free – it is so important to preserve this disease-free status.

In the same way that islands provide a privileged position in relation to animal diseases, human populations on islands are similarly protected from diseases that may sweep the mainland.  However, this protection carries with it certain risks.  Comparisons are sometimes made between Tristan da Cunha and St. Kilda, which is a tiny storm-bound rocky archipelago 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides in Scotland.  The people on St. Kilda lived a very basic life not dissimilar to the life that used to exist in Tristan – seabirds and their eggs provided much of the islanders’ food, in addition to which they reared sheep and grew potatoes.  It is thought that the island had been inhabited for around 4,000 years.  However, at the end of the 1800’s and the beginning of the 1900’s, the lack of exposure to diseases that were common in the outside world proved to be the undoing of the people of St Kilda.  At this time, and for the first time, the island received visits from their first ‘tourists’.  They previously had no exposure to common diseases, and no immunity.  They went down like flies.  In one year, four children died from the ‘common cold’.  The population declined rapidly, until in 1930 it had reduced to an unsustainable level and the remaining 36 people were evacuated at their own request.

The parallels with Tristan are obvious.  In our time on the island, we observed the islanders’ concern every time non-islanders arrived, and we observed a wave of cold-like illness after most visits.  The case of corona virus is a little different, in that since it is a new virus no-one in the world has immunity to it.  If exposed to the virus, it is likely that 100% of Tristanians would develop the disease just like 100% of people in any other country.  The essential differences would come after the disease has been contracted by individual islanders.  In the first place, medical facilities on the island are very limited, with extremely limited laboratories and no provision for intensive care.  Secondly, there are many people who would find themselves in the high risk category for corona virus – for example the level of asthma and other respiratory problems is extremely high, as is the level of other underlying medical conditions, and there is a high percentage of the population who are over 70.  There is no doubt that an outbreak of Corona Virus would be extremely serious for the people of Tristan.  With this background, the Island Council made a sensible and logical decision on 9 March this year, to the effect that passengers on the three cruise ships that were due to arrive (Le Lyrial, Silver Cloud and Planeius) would not be allowed to land on the island.  In making this decision, the Island Council would have taken into account the loss of an important source of revenue from the cruise ship visitors, but the risks to the health of the people of the island were simply not worth taking.

In the days after this decision, there were all sorts of discussions on social media to do with the level of vulnerability that the island of Tristan da Cunha experienced as a result of Corona Virus.  These discussions revolved around the potential impact of the disease itself, and leading on from that the island’s reliance on imported food and the level of self sufficiency that it enjoys. Many of the views expressed were ill-informed, even though they came from people who had actually been to the island, and worked there.  The reality of the situation can be summarised as follows.

The island is heavily dependent on imported food.  In a normal year, nine ships are scheduled to arrive at the island, and among other things these ships carry a wide range of stocks for the island grocery shop. The island can and does survive perfectly well if one or two of these consignments fails to arrive, as sometimes happens for a variety of reasons.  Every household has a well stocked deep freeze and a decent stock of canned food, flour, sugar, etc.  Also, there is a culture of sharing and borrowing, so if a household runs out of one item the chances are that it can be obtained from a neighbour or a relative.  Survival during a period of short-term cutting of the food chain would absolutely not be a problem.

An analysis of the potential and actual self sufficiency of the island is another matter.  There are really only three products in which the island is truly self sufficient, these being water, mutton and fish.  The island is also virtually self sufficient in beef.  At any one time there is at least a year’s supply of beef ‘on the hoof’, and the beef items that are imported are limited to manufactured items such as beef sausages and canned foods such as meat balls – these beef items are not imported in large quantities.  On the other hand, chicken meat and pork are both imported in quite large quantities.  No pigs are currently kept on the island, and surprisingly the islanders are generally squeamish at the idea of eating their own chickens.  It must be remembered that in the event of Tristan making a decision to become self sufficient in chicken meat or in pork, the production of these two commodities could only be achieved by the importation of feed for the livestock, so in effect the home production of one commodity would be offset by the import of another commodity.

Tristan prides itself on the production of potatoes, but when self sufficiency is being considered there are two important caveats.  Firstly, there have been years in the past when disease, insect attack or the ravages of the weather have given rise to a partial or total crop failure, and there can be no doubt these crop failures will also occur in the future.  Secondly, in addition to the potatoes grown by the island a considerable quantity of potato products – particularly crisps and frozen chips – are included in every consignment of foodstuffs that arrives on the island.

Weather conditions on the island are harsh for the growing of vegetables.  Storms frequently wipe out a growing crop.  Also, it is an unfortunate fact that various harmful insect pests have managed to make their way to Tristan, and these insect pests can cause considerable damage partly because they have no natural predators to keep their numbers in check.  Most of the houses have a sheltered garden area in which vegetables used to be grown, but in many cases the garden ground has been taken over by the invasive New Zealand flax.  As with other elements of food production, it would be possible to envisage a significant increase in vegetable production, but this would only be following a long period of work in which all players (DFID or other funding agencies, the Administrator, the Island Council, and the islanders themselves) committed themselves to a rigorous development programme.  In the meantime I would suggest that the island is less than 25% self sufficient in vegetables (other than potatoes)

As far as fruit is concerned,  apples, pears and plums are grown but on a very small scale.  There used to be reasonable quantities of apples grown at Sandy Point, but there is now no production in that area.  Production from the few trees within the settlement could be significantly increased, for example by pruning of the trees and by cutting back the invasive New Zealand flax, but I found no enthusiasm among the islanders to care for their fruit trees in this way, and large tonnages of these fruits are imported.  It goes without saying that tropical and semi-tropical fruit simply could not be grown on Tristan.  Overall, I would suggest that the island is some 10% self sufficient in fruit, at the most.

Finally, with every shipload of provisions coming onto the island there is a large quantity of manufactured goods, which could not under any circumstances be produced on the island (particularly for the limited population which currently stands at around 246 people)  This includes staples such as flour, sugar, tea and coffee, also breakfast cereals, cheese and butter, biscuits, and frozen and tinned commodities.  It also includes large quantities of fizzy drinks and of alcoholic drinks.  There is no scope to produce any of these items locally, thus there is no possibility of any level of import substitution in the category of manufactured or processed foods.  Thus, in this category (with large tonnages involved) there is zero self-sufficiency.

One is left with the fact that Tristan is very far from being self sufficient in foodstuffs.  Some improvement in this position could be achieved, if the islanders wanted to go that way.  Alternatively, it is a perfectly reasonable policy for the island to produce what it does best – i.e. Tristan Lobster, and to import foods from areas that are better suited to the production of these foods – i.e. virtually the whole of Africa!  It is then of course sensible, or even essential, to maximise production of those things that do well on the island (beef, mutton, potatoes, etc) particularly as a strategic policy, which would be important in the event that several supply ships failed to arrive.  Which is where this article started with the Corona Virus and the passengers on the cruise ships!





Tristan gains from over 100 years of farming expertise



Two highly experienced specialists

Many people will recognise one or both of the people pictured above.  Gavin Jack (in the blue shirt) was Agriculture Officer on Tristan from 1972 until 1976.  Alasdair Wyllie (in the fawn shirt) was Agriculture Adviser on the island from 2016 until 2019.  Between them, these two specialists have over 100 years of farming experience, gained in a wide range of environments and with all sorts of farming enterprises.

Gavin’s time on the island was his first professional employment after qualifying in agriculture at Edinburgh.  He is fondly remembered by many people on Tristan, although sadly many people who worked in his team are no longer with us.  Alasdair’s time on the island may well be his last professional job, since at the age of 73 he is now considering partial retirement.

The two met recently at the house that Alasdair and his wife Bee are building in Callander, in Perthshire, Scotland.  Strangely enough, Gavin originally comes from Blackford, in Perthshire, just about twelve miles away from Callander, although he now lives in Australia.  As may be imagined, the hours they had together were spent in some intense discussions on how things were on the island in Gavin’s time, and how they are today.  Although there have been many changes in the last 40 years, these have largely been on things like electricity, television, internet and telephone.  Agriculture still faces very similar challenges today to those that Gavin faced in his time there.  The one area of hope is to do with the cattle now that the quota for cattle ownership has been greatly reduced – if this is accompanied by good grassland management the production from the island’s herd will be greatly improved.  Sadly, there is still great progress to be made in the island production of fruit and vegetables.

Alasdair remains in touch with a number of islanders, and is continuing to help where he can.  Now it is Gavin’s turn!  Gavin is due to return to Tristan early in 2020, in general to help continue the work done by Alasdair and specifically to help with the planned sheep breeding programme.  It is likely to be an extraordinary visit for all concerned after a gap of 44 years!

I hope very much to be able to report on Gavin’s experience on Tristan this time round, with some details of how the sheep breeding programme went as well as the overall state of agriculture now.



Leaving the Island

It is nearly 19 weeks since Bee and I arrived back in Scotland after our time – nearly 2 ½ years – on the island of Tristan da Cunha.  Which means that it is 22 weeks since we left the island itself.  How did that happen?  Where did all that time go?

Bigger questions are all to do with the impressions that we have on re-joining the developed world, which in turn is a reflection of how we had become accustomed to life on the island, and the extent to which our outlooks have changed.  Everyone we meet back here poses the same line of questions, and it is natural that we have become reflective as a result of our experiences.

Perhaps the greatest difference we have been aware of, from the time that we set foot off the boat in Cape Town to face an on-going exposure to the modern world, is to do with the rampant commercialisation that we are all faced with.  On the island choice was limited and basics only were available, which is exactly as you would expect when the shop supplies to a population of just 246 people.  In Cape Town we found shops and restaurants with an endless range of goods available.  We were not used to this!    Not only are the shops full of stuff that we really do not need, but also there are extraordinary numbers of on-line traders looking for payment today for delivery tomorrow. This observation is, literally, brought home now that we are back in Scotland.  We are half way through building our house, and the range of goods available is simply overwhelming.  On the island, there might be a possibility of a new lavatory being available from Public Works if your existing one should crack, whereas here there are literally thousands of different shapes, styles and prices.  The same goes for kitchens, floor coverings, light fittings.  The world has become complicated, and perhaps in the last 2½ years Bee and I have become simplified.

One of the things we have both noticed is variety of bird life and the amount of bird song that we have in Scotland.  Tristan effectively has no song birds.  Certainly the island has interesting bird life, but the birds are generally silent.  The Northern Rockhopper Penguins come ashore to ‘rookeries’ (as if they were rooks!) but the only sound they make is a discordant screech if they are handled, as for example when the Conservation Department carries out a ringing operation in the rookeries.  The Yellow Nosed Albatross is silent, apart from sometimes a warning bill-clicking if you approach within a few inches of them when they are on their nest.  So naturally we are strongly aware of the birds now that we are back home.  The leader of the orchestra is the blackbird, which starts up the dawn chorus at around 4.00 in the morning.  We have friendly robins cheering up every corner of the garden with their song, a range of finches in the trees announcing their territory to all comers.  We have several species of duck flying a circuit on their way to land on the river, and overhead a skein of geese will be chattering among themselves.  Also overhead, swallows and swifts screech as they hunt insects in the evening, and oystercatchers add another dimension to the aerial sounds.  We even have a cock pheasant in the garden, strutting his stuff and calling to the world while his mate looks after her clutch of eggs somewhere in the undergrowth, ready to protect the baby chicks from neighbourhood cats. We have seductive wood pigeon calls and discordant jackdaw calls. Above all are the owls, which add night-time soul to the woodlands with their haunting calls one to another.   It is all so different from Tristan, and no doubt we appreciate the diversity of bird life more than before we went to the sI suppose that diversity is one of the main differences between Tristan and Scotland.  Not diversity in the narrow social sense, but true diversity covering all subjects.  Compared with Tristan, we have here a diversity of farming systems, of trees, of landscapes.  There is diversity of people, and the things they get up to at work and in their leisure time.  There is even diversity of places to go and eat or pubs in which to go and socialise!  This is all to be expected, and after the privations of Tristan da Cunha it is only to be expected that we feel the difference.  Indeed, there is no doubt that our time on the island has sharpened our appreciation of our own country.

A rookery of northern rockhopper penguins
Yellow nosed albatros nesting on nearby Nightingale Island

As also can be expected, one of the greatest differences that we see – and appreciate – is in the everyday shopping.  Where we live in Scotland we have a mini-supermarket just a 5 minute stroll from the door, which is open from 6 in the morning to 11 at night, seven days a week.  What service!  The shop on the island opened at 8 and closed at 2.30, Monday to Friday.  Even then, as can be imagined, the range of goods was really limited.  In particular, fruit and vegetables were often not in stock, or were in poor condition.  This was all part of a chicken-and-egg situation in which poor availability of fresh foods (fruit and vegetables) resulted in a low interest in routinely using such foods.  This is particularly sad when you consider that the island could become self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables, if only there was sufficient interest in each household growing their own.

No fruit and veg in the island shop (but plenty of fizzy drinks)

Island life was delightfully simple – it had to be.  I now have to adapt to complications and regulations that would have been unthinkable on Tristan da Cunha.  For example, we are in the middle of building our house, and it is just astonishing how many and how complex the regulations are that I have to comply with.  For example, the Building Inspector told me that I had to lower all the light switches by 20cms, so that they are easy to reach if one is sitting in a wheelchair.  And the water inspector told me that an outside standpipe had to be equipped with a second double-check valve, in addition to the one already fitted.  None of this on Tristan – there you go through the simplest of procedures to get permission to build, and then you get on with it with no regulations to comply with of any sort.  Possibly the ideal system would be somewhere between these two extremes!

One question is – What Next?  Getting the house finished is top priority.  After that – watch this space!!  We may well go off and do more exciting things, probably involving islands, boats and land use.  It is perfectly possible that I will try to weave stories of our next activities into this site.  In any case, I still have material all prepared for a number of articles on Tristan, and I hope to get these written and published before long.

It is not a busy pub – but it is a pub!  The Albatros bar.





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

Ships + Fruit

One of the deep-sea fishing vessels that comes to Tristan is the MFV Edinburgh.  This trusty boat was built in 1970, and was named Hekla.  People who are familiar with the island of Iceland will know that Hekla is also the name of one of the most significant live volcanoes on that island.

MFV Edinburgh at anchor off Tristan, February 2019

Hekla was bought by Ovenstones, sometime in the 1980’s.  Ovenstone Agencies is the South African company that currently has the fishing concession on Tristan da Cunha.  At that time the ship had a name-change, and she became MFV Edinburgh.  Presumably this was in recognition of the formal name of the settlement on Tristan, which is Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.  Edinburgh is one of two ships operated by Ovenstones, the other one being the MFV Geo Searcher.  In any one year, the Edinburgh is scheduled to make six visits to Tristan, and the Geo Searcher to make three visits.  Each visit from Cape Town may have a number of different objectives, which can include fishing for lobsters among the off-lying islands, delivering cargo to the island, delivering fuel to the island, long-line fishing for pelagic fish on the Tristan sea-mounts, taking lobster back from the Tristan factory to Cape Town, and of course taking passengers of all sorts from Cape Town to Tristan and back again.  Apart from the once-a-year visit of the ship called SA Agulhas 2, virtually all passengers arriving at Tristan or leaving the island will be carried on these deep-sea fishing ships, each carrying up to 12 passengers.

The visits of these ships are not scheduled to take place regularly throughout the year – there can be long periods with no ship, then two arrive virtually together.  This does not affect the fishing operations, but it does have an effect on all the departments on the island who are dependent on these ships for their supplies, not least of which is the ‘Supermarket’.

MFV Edinburgh lying in Cape Town harbour, viewed from the deck of SA Agulhas 2

The Edinburgh departed from Cape Town for her most recent visit on the 16th of January, with an expected arrival date of the 23rd of January.  This ship was eagerly awaited, particularly for her delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables because the previous shipment was on the 19th of November last year.   However, on Tristan not everything works to plan.  The ship was more than half way across when she encountered engine problems, and had to turn back to Cape Town for repairs.  She departed Cape Town for the second time on January 25th, and finally arrived on the 31st of January, eight days later than expected.  Weather conditions were good enough to get the passengers off that evening, but it was not until the following Monday, the 4th February, before it was possible to start unloading some of the fresh cargo.  Hence, it was some 10 weeks from the last delivery in November to the present one.

The fresh produce was eagerly awaited.  The fruit and vegetable shelves were empty, and islanders were looking forward to stocking up with some healthy food.

Unfortunately, the story does not stop there.  When the first pallet of fresh goods arrived outside the shop, it was found that there was some mouse damage.  In particular, a mouse had eaten its way through some of the sweetcorn, and evidently the cold conditions of the chiller on the boat eventually became too much for the stowaway, because the carcase of the offending rodent was there to be found.

This caused the entire fresh consignment to be condemned.  Five trailer-loads of fresh fruit and vegetables were taken up to the dump at Pig Bite, where they were buried.

A sorry sight – inside the Tristan shop with an empty Fruit and Vegetable counter

There was a similar event with a shipment just before Christmas in 2016.  On that occasion some frozen pig products had been loaded in Cape Town on top of a pallet of fresh fruit, which had then been placed in the chiller unit on board the ship.  The unloading of the ship was delayed by bad weather, the pork thawed and seeped all over the fruit, and the consignment was condemned.

Wearing my hat as agriculturalist, it does seem to me that these two incidents send a very clear message.  This simple message is that it is so important for the island to take seriously the concept of becoming self-sufficient in all possible crops, in order to reduce to the minimum the reliance on imported fresh products.  It is a shame that the islanders have to go without fresh fruit and vegetables while the slow evolution of change takes place.






Visiting boats


We travelled back to Tristan da Cunha early last September, after a long and busy period of leave.  It all worked in very well (at least it has done so far!).  My two year contract was extended for a couple of months, which in turn meant that we had a generous amount of time back in Scotland (and France, and England).  It also meant that I could run ‘hands-off’ on our farming operations on the island, as a sort of trial run, – as well as lining ourselves up for no fewer than four summers in a row!

Through the next four months, we gradually came out of winter in the southern hemisphere, and life continued pretty much as normal.  Farming events continued to take place, expat staff continued to arrive and to leave, and whenever the weather was suitable there were fishing days, harvesting the Tristan Lobster.  However, there was one action that did not take place for that whole time.  There were no visiting ships.

To clarify.  The two fishing factory ships that are operated by the South African company that holds the fishing concession visited as normal.  Each in turn, they arrived off the island, unloaded their cargo onto powered rafts, went fishing, backloaded the packed + frozen lobster from the island, and returned to Cape Town.  These are regular ships, not really visitors.  And in this whole time, there were no visiting ships – no cruise ships, no visiting fishing boats, not even a lonely yacht!

On Friday 4th January, that all changed.  We have three South African engineers working on the island for some months, and for almost four weeks they are pretty much working on their own because the whole island is on holiday.  When they went down to the harbour at 6.30 in the morning to start the day’s work – for the first time ever there was a yacht tied up in the harbour!

Faustin’s Dream in Tristan Harbour

Why would it have been the first time that a yacht tied up in the harbour?  The island authorities always instruct visiting vessels to anchor off; they are never allowed to come into the harbour.  The harbour is extremely shallow, and although it may for a short time have sufficient depth for a shallow-draft boat, when the sea is calm, as soon as any swell enters the harbour it becomes untenable because of the highs and lows that the swell brings.   Some three years ago, contractors carried out a project to deepen the harbour, before which it would certainly have been impossible for a yacht to tie up inside, no matter what the sea conditions.

In the case of the yacht last Friday, it appears that they tried to radio a couple of times shortly before dawn, to check mooring instructions, but since they did not receive a reply they came all the way into the harbour and tied up.  There were some special circumstances, in that they were very short of water and they were running out of food and fuel.  They were on a passage from Brazil to Cape Town, and they had decided to put in a detour to lay in some stocks.  The shop was opened up for them, someone helped them to some cans of diesel fuel, and with typical kindness islanders gave them bread, potatoes and eggs.

Faustin’s Dream heads off to continue her passage to Cape Town

The yacht, called Faustin’s Dream, was a Bavaria 44, with two crew on board – a Frenchman from Lyon and another from La Réunion.  The voyage had started in the Mediterranean, and after passing through Cape Town they were heading eventually for Réunion.  They left Tristan on Friday afternoon, and we wish them a safe passage.

The following day, we had another visitor!  This time it was the Falklands Islands registered fishing boat the Argos Vigo, that had come to Tristan waters to go south and fish on some of the sea mounts south east from here.  They came here to pick up two island observers, which always accompany fishing ships when they are working in Tristan waters.  So, after 4 months of no visiting vessels, we have two in two days!

Argos Vigo, just before picking up her fisheries observers





Devastating Floods On Tristan

In the region of 200,000 years ago, one single volcano spewed billions of tons of rock out from the floor of the South Atlantic, and the island of Tristan da Cunha was formed. From the very time that the classic cone-shape was formed, the forces of nature began to beat and weather the newly emerged volcanic rock. Rain would be the main agent to erode the rock face, and the softer rock would erode most easily. At the same time, all around the shore the constant action of wave impacts would cause sea erosion. Year after year the process of erosion would continue, and year after year material eroded from the high ground would be deposited on the coastal fringes. Bit by bit the coastal plains would be built up with boulders, stone and grit from the high ground. Thus, over the years, the coastal plains would be formed, the biggest of which of course is the Settlement Plain. The plain is full of evidence of boulders and other material coming down from the high ground, reflecting years of particularly heavy rain. At the same time the rock and grit deposits on the plain would themselves be eroded by huge streams of water, cutting out the gullies and taking the deposits down to the sea.

It is clear that some years this process of erosion and deposition is relatively gentle, but some years the rain is unusually heavy and the erosion action of the rain is unusually high. Either because of the normal cyclical nature of weather patterns or perhaps because of global warming, we have seen very heavy rain in recent years. Last year we saw the land-slip across the road leading to The Valley being formed. This year, we have seen the worst floods and flood damage in living memory.

It all started, really, on April 14th. On that day there was continuous very heavy rain for a long time. The waterfalls were all in full force, the watrons (streams) were running hard, and people either kept indoors or went out in wellies. The gritty soil and sub-soil on the island drains very freely, and by the following day the signs of flooding were starting to disappear. Then came the night of the 17th / 18th.   Falling on ground that was already waterlogged, very heavy continuous rain caused storm damage of biblical proportions.

Devastation at the Potato Patches
Overview of the ruined Potato Patches

In the middle of the night, it became apparent that action was necessary to save properties that were being threatened by the flood. The Settlement street lights were switched on, and a small team of ‘action men’ turned out with a JCB, diverting rivers of water from the houses, particularly to the east of the settlement where the Big Watron was substantially overflowing its banks.

Towards the Settlement looking over the Big Watron – and the completely hidden cattle grid

The following day, and for a number of weeks, damage repair work was carried out on a priority basis. Help was given to some householders whose homes had been flooded. Gates were put up to take the place of cattle grids, which had been filled to the top with stone and silt. Also, the PWD (Public Works Department) turned out in force, partly to cut some sort of a roadway through the massive new fields of stone and grit, and partly to make temporary repairs to the erosion that had taken place in some of the gullies.

In the two days of heavy rain, 132mm of rain fell. This is not in itself a phenomenal amount of rain, but it comes after a very wet year. Already this year, five months in, we have had over three-quarters of the annual rainfall average

One of the of the questions that this emergency has raised is to try and find out the overall reason for so much land material being swept off the Base (The Base is the high land, running up from the top of the coastal cliffs right up to the Peak), because the main part of the damage done has been caused by alluvial deposits, rather than simply running water. It is clear that considerable erosion is taking place on the Base. Even some weeks after this awful event, when a heavy rain caused the waterfalls to run it was clear that there were white waterfalls and brown waterfalls. The brown waterfalls evidently had very heavy loads of silt and stone being washed off the Base. The unanswerable questions that need to be asked are along the lines of :- Is this amount of erosion simply a consequence of very heavy rain? Are we seeing increased rainfall as a result of global warming? Are there environmental reasons for this high level of soil erosion, and in particular is there a possibility that grazing by sheep has exposed the soil on the base to increased weathering? It will be very difficult to obtain factual evidence to support any particular theory, since there is a lack of survey information that measures, analyses and describes the situation on the Base, and access at the moment is dangerous and highly restricted. If we had a resident helicopter the task would be easier!

The damage that has been done can be divided into the following categories:-

  1. House flooding. Individual householders have been faced with flooded homes. Some carpets have been ruined, and the drying-out process has caused hardship to individual families
  2. Cattle grids. Three cattle grids have been filled to the top with silt, rendering them totally ineffective – cattle can walk across them with ease. As a result, a new gate has been installed in one case, and in two cases cattle have had to be moved from their normal pastures because they can no longer be retained by the cattle grids. The Agriculture Department is faced with the task of rebuilding these cattle grids.
  3. The road system has suffered greatly. Within the Settlement there is considerable evidence of the road structure being weakened and eroded. On the road to the Patches, there are whole lengths where the road has been completely washed out. In other sections, new potholes have been formed, and there is plenty of evidence of erosion causing further damage and vulnerability.
  4. Water troughs. Silt has been washed down the hill, in one case completely burying a cattle drinking trough.
  5. It is believed that around 12 sheep were washed out to sea by the floods, and one dead cow has been found half buried in the stone and grit deposits. It is assumed that these animals were sheltering in the gullies when they were overcome by the water.
  6. Gully road crossings. Three gullies on the road to the Patches were deeply eroded, making them impassable to any vehicle. PWD rapidly sent out excavators, and quick repairs were made by constructing barriers of boulders on the lower side of the crossings (known as ‘rip-rap’ to land engineers) and infilling with silt and gravel in order to make the crossings usable.
  7. Land slips. These are probably better described as alluvial fan deltas, rather than land slips, since they have been formed by water-borne boulders, stones and silt being washed down from the high ground and progressively being deposited on the slopes as the flowing water lost its momentum, rather than the mountainside slipping away en masse and being deposited on the plain.   The area and volume of the land slip which was formed last year increased considerably – perhaps its volume trebled. But the main devastation was caused by an entirely new slip or delta that swept down from the area of the Base that feeds Wash Gulch and which covered an area of about 70 acres. The grazing area that this slip covers, together with a number of smaller deposits, are now of no use at all to our grazing cattle.
  8. Potato patches. The Red Body Hill Potato Patches have essentially been destroyed by the new land slip described in the above paragraph. Some 15 – 20 Patches are lost. It remains to be seen whether anything can be done to restore these areas, or whether these Patches are lost for ever. What is certain is that if the island embarks on any programme to recover these potato growing areas, the work will be difficult, time-consuming and expensive.
  9. While in some areas valuable pasture land has been covered up by silt and stone, in other areas erosion has removed pasture and washed it away. For example, large areas of the seaward side of Hill Piece have been lost by erosion, before and after photographs showing the extent of the loss of grazing land. Meanwhile the sides of all the gullies have been eroded by the force of water, and more grazing land has been lost in these areas.
Erosion in in a watron through the Potato Patches
The seaward side of Hillpiece – just look at all the land loss
Slip of pasture land in Hottentot Gulch

The people of Tristan da Cunha are known for being able to respond to natural calamities in a pragmatic, practical and co-ordinated way. That has already been evident with the works carried out in the last weeks since the floods. During the coming months, a wide range of works will be carried out as part of the flood recovery effort. However, there is one aspect of island life and the island economy that will take a severe beating from this flood calamity, and that is the situation with the cattle. It is well established and well recorded that there has been substantial overgrazing by cattle for very many years. The overgrazing problem, simply caused by having too many cattle for the land resources available, has all of a sudden been made very much worse by the flood damage. The approach into winter is the very worst time for the island to suffer a reduction in the grazing surface of around 10 – 12%. The Agriculture Department is making all effort to minimise the impact of the flood related problems, but it is felt that there is increasing awareness of the strategic danger of having too many cattle for the carrying capacity of the land.

First Two Months on Tristan

It has been an extraordinarily busy time of the year.

For us, having arrived on November 30th, we went first into temporary accommodation as guests of Pat and Peter.  This was a good experience, they are lovely people and we heard many tales of the old days on Tristan, including the time of the evacuation.  After two weeks we moved into our ‘permanent’ place, which in one of the old original Scots-built houses from the very early 1800’s.  It has some good points and some not-so-good.  The kitchen is great, a good size and with reasonable work-tops, but – no hot water yet!  The view from the house is really superb.  Then – it is debatable as to whether our proximity to the pub is good or not!

The whole island closes down for three weeks over Christmas, all except some essential services.  This is the annual summer holiday.  Many of the islanders go down ‘camping’ at the Patches, where they have simple huts beside their potato plots.  The holiday period was this time interrupted by two Unloading Days, on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day.  Certainly not ideal, but it had to be done.

As befits an island community that was founded by a Scot, Auld Year’s Night or Hogmanay is taken quite seriously.  All were invited to a party on the lawn of the Residence, where the Administrator lives.  This was our first experience of an island-wide social event.  During the late afternoon before the event we noticed a number of monsters on the streets – there were all together about twelve very frightening monsters;  seemingly they go around making reasonably harmless mischief, and then they come in to the garden party at the Residence.  These are called Okalolies, and the tradition for them on the island goes back a very long time.  I will try to find out more, and report back!  Parties go on into the wee small hours, with New Year announced at midnight by much ringing of the gong.


Monsters arriving at the residence

The holiday did not apply to the ex-pats, and in any case holiday or not I was quite occupied preparing my Inception Report.  This is a comprehensive and detailed piece of work outlining the agricultural situation on the island today, with in mind discussion and decision making which in turn will provide me with a programme to work to in the two years to come.  This is now all done, and I was able to present it to the Island Council on the 18th January.  We are due to have a sort of brainstorming meeting as a follow-up in about ten days’ time.

On the 13th and 14th of January, we had Shearing Day.  This is the annual community event when almost everyone goes down to the sheep pens, and in good island tradition work and fun are joined together.  The entire flock of around 1,000 sheep is collected in the central area of the sheep pens, and each owner draws out his own sheep, which he keeps in his own pen ready for shearing.  This is a time when sheep owners help each other, and when children get involved with the nitty gritty of sheep farming.  Bystanders and their cars and motorbikes surround the sheep pens area, music is played – and many of the women can be seen knitting.  Once the work is all done, it is time to celebrate, and bries (barbecues) and partying go on late into the evening.

Knitting being done as the sheep get shorn

We have had visits from four ships in the last week.  Late on the 14th,  HMS Portland arrived together with her merchant navy escort ship.  Crew from the ships became tourists, and in spite of it being Sunday the supermarket stayed open, the tourist shop and gift shop opened, and the pub opened.  The Navy played the Island at football, and the last of the Navy visitors were taken back to their ship around 7.00 in the evening.  There were many empty cans left behind!  Meanwhile, a ship chartered by the National Geographic arrived.   Grenville is on a research and filming expedition to Tristan and the nearby islands of Nightingale and Inaccessible as well as Gough Island, some 200 miles further south.   She was also carrying a number of passengers who were either people coming to work here or Islanders returning home.

The fourth ship was the Pacific Askari, with another consignment of building materials for the new hospital.  She was unloaded quickly and left the following day.

We (particularly of course Bee) are now involved in preparations for a Wedding, due to take place on the 20th.  Mike and Nena have been here for around 18 months, and because he is in charge (among other things) of all the unloading operations, which are so weather-dependent and so crucial, they have had to postpone their wedding twice because it clashed with a window in the weather that allowed unloading to resume.

Bee’s ornamental spoon among all the others

Profiterole Pyramid, ready for the wedding