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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:-
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
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.
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.
Water troughs. Silt has been washed down the hill, in one case completely burying a cattle drinking trough.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We have been in Cape Town now for four days, having arrived via Glasgow and Heathrow on Monday. It has been a wonderful experience – details to follow. Our ship is due to leave next Thursday – the reality of what we are doing will catch up with us after that time.
I hope to put all manner of stories on this site – including our experiences with the islanders and the expats on the island, historical details that we come across, details of the various human activities, details on the bird life on the island, and of course information on the farming.
I have been pondering a comparison between farming in mainland Scotland and farming on a remote island.
No doubt, there are some advantages in a remote farming situation. For example, there is a huge oceanic barrier against the possible entry of pests and diseases. On the mainland, diseases of livestock and of crops can be brought in to a farm by many vectors, including wind, vehicle wheels, animals and birds. Farmers have to be on the alert for problems on a continuous basis. In addition, there is a well-developed infrastructure of vets, advisers, laboratories and suppliers, to help the farmer with any incident that may arise. Clearly, in Tristan such a support infrastructure is out of the question and in the event of problems the farmers have to rely on support organisations that can take many weeks to access, and remedies can take many weeks to arrive. The other consideration is that many livestock problems fall into the categories of conditions that are induced by feed or environmental conditions, and these problems can occur whether you are farming in a remote island or in a mainland situation – I am thinking of conditions such as milk fever, acetonaemia, bloat and of course calving difficulties.
In terms of all pests and diseases, and of introduced species such as invasive plant weeds, the oceanic barrier that serves to protect the island is only good until it is penetrated. Great care has to be taken not to introduce problems, particularly with imported livestock and plants. But also we need to have a clear picture as to what has come in through the actions of Man in the last 200 years. There seems to be little point going to extreme lengths to prevent the introduction of a disease if that disease is already widespread on the island.
Within the farming structure of Scotland, farmers have a great inter-dependency largely so that specialist livestock production can be concentrated on the conditions for which it is most suitable. Hill farmers will sell ewe lambs to upland farmers, who then cross them and then sell the resulting lambs to lowland farmers to be further crossed to produce the lamb for the butcher. Equally, hardy beef cattle from upland areas are sold on to lowland farmers to be finished on quality grass, or to be used to produce a further generation of crossbreeds. In the recent annual Bull Sales in Stirling, no fewer than 856 pedigree bulls were sold by specialist producers to farmers in other areas, including England, Wales and the Continent. Clearly, these mutually beneficial trading relationships are not available to farmers on the Island.
There are other ways in which farmers in mainland Scotland can help each other. This extends from the formal buyer groups and machinery rings, to farm contractors, to informal chats and the sharing of ideas. It is only the last ‘informal chat’ category that is available to farmers on the Island.
It may be imagined that as I wait in Cape Town for the ship to take me to my new challenge, I find the conditions I am going to quite daunting. In the months since my appointment I have tried to carry out research and to develop contacts as much as possible, but I cannot prepare for everything. I am also strongly aware of the necessary timescale for the implementation of measures of improvement – the sequence of advocacy – debate – decision making – funding – shipping could easily take 12 months – and we are only 24 months on Tristan!
I feel as if I have known about Tristan da Cunha all my life, at least since the islanders were evacuated to the UK in 1961, when I was 15. That was the time of the most recent serious volcano eruption, when the entire settlement was threatened by a lava flow. The people of Tristan were housed at the Air Force camp of Calshot in Hampshire and I remember clearly the two-way feelings of curiosity that were reflected in the British press on a regular basis. The islanders came from a community which had seen few changes since it was formed in 1816, and they had built up a resilience, a resourcefulness and a community spirit that was strange to most Brits in the 1960’s. Their strangeness was exaggerated by the Press, and I remember discussions at school that focussed on the way in which the Tristanians were treated as curiosity items. The islanders were provided for in terms of essential daily needs, but little effort was made to integrate them into British society. Indeed any attempts made at integration were unlikely to succeed given the huge differences in cultural background, for the islanders had little understanding of shopping, money, employment, travel, and all the myriad of things that were part of everyday existence for the people of Britain. A year after the evacuation, an advance party re-visited the island and it was found that the lava flow had not, as was feared, destroyed the houses in the settlement and that there was no reason why the people of Tristan da Cunha should not return to their island home, if they really wanted to. The vast majority of islanders decided to return to Tristan, and the press in Britain continued to demonstrate that they had little understanding of the nature of the islanders with comments like “Ungrateful blighters” – the press viewed that the so-called generosity of Britain towards the Tristanians should have resulted in the people of Tristan unanimously deciding that the British lifestyle was so much more rewarding than life on the island. They took the view that the islanders were making a big mistake in turning down all the advantages of living in a developed, civilised country. And they failed to understand how these people could choose to return to their wet and windswept island, that is distinctive for being the most remote inhabited island in the world.
Fifty three years later, early in 2016, the worldwide press latched on to an advertisement that had just been placed; many articles were written about the fact that a two year job was being offered to a British farmer on an “island paradise”. I liked the idea of an island paradise, and of course I read on. The main responsibilities were to concentrate on food security, self-sufficiency and sustainability. Existing farming enterprises such as cattle, sheep and potatoes were to be modernised and streamlined. New enterprises such as apples and polytunnel production were to be introduced. They were looking for a person with a wide range of farming knowledge and with experience of living in remote situations. I read the advertisement through four times, it seemed that they were describing me. I decided that the job had my name on it, and by the end of March I had accepted the job offer that had by then been made to me.
The following pages describe the challenges, frustrations and rewards that face my wife and me as the months go by on our ‘island paradise’. The plan is that we travel out in November 2016, and our sea-freight of personal effects is already on its way.