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!
Tristan da Cunha is remote, by any standards. But within the archipelago that Tristan encompasses, there is an island that is considered remote even by the people of Tristan. Around 220 miles further south from Tristan is Gough Island, named after Capt. Charles Gough of the ship called the Richmond, who discovered it in 1732.
Gough Island is around 13 km long and 5 km wide. It is home to around 10 million seabirds as well as two species of land birds – the Gough Bunting and the Gough Moorhen. In recognition of Gough being a hugely important place for bird life, with a unique largely unspoiled habitat, the island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. It’s classification was added to by being joined by Inaccessible Island (another small island in the Tristan archipelago) in 2004.
Gough Island is uninhabited. However, for the last 62 years the South African Weather Service has had a lease arrangement with the Tristan Government, and during this time it has maintained a scientific base on the island. Teams of staff spend an uninterrupted 12 months on the island, the main purpose of which is to monitor weather conditions in order to help with the forecasting of weather in southern Africa. In addition to the meterologists, the team includes engineers and a medic. There are also normally three staff from the RSPB (Royal Society of the Protection of Birds) who are bird scientists, and whose job it is to monitor the bird population on Gough.
The importance of Gough can be seen, for example, in the fact that 99% of the world population of Tristan Albatross nest on the island, and 100% of Gough Buntings nest there. Both species are critically endangered. There are also populations of a large range of other Albatross, Shearwater, Petrel and Prion species, some of which are also classified as being endangered.
Around 2006, the use of camera traps was able to prove conclusively what a few observers had already suspected. This is that mice were predating on the wild bird chicks. Mice had been on the island for many years, probably brought there originally by sealers in the 19th century. The mice lived in harmony with the bird population, their diet consisting of plant seeds and insects. Then – they evolved into chick-eaters. This evolution, the change in eating habits of mice, has been seen in a parallel situation on Marion Island, where by means of careful monitoring during the space of just four seasons, ‘normal’ mice had evolved into predators of bird chicks. The scale of this predation on Gough is enormous – in 2016 it was estimated that mice were responsible for the killing of 600,000 chicks. Following a scientific study on Gough some weeks ago, this has now been revised and updated to 2 million chicks and eggs a year. There have been some quite gruesome pictures of groups of mice eating albatross chicks alive. The interesting thing is that the parent albatross just looks on unconcerned. One stab of the adult albatross beak could easily kill a mouse, and bear in mind that an adult albatross might weigh 2 kg as compared to a mouse of about 25 grams. The problem is that the Albatross (and other species) have nothing in their genetic makeup to tell them that mice are dangerous.
The RSPB team stationed on the island, together with visiting specialists in September / October this year, came up with some alarming figures. For example, they found that this year the population of the critically endangered Tristan Albatross reared just 309 chicks from of 1,435 nests – only 21% instead of the 80 – 100% that would be the target for the species to have a long-term future.
In recent years, just as there have been huge technical advances in camera traps and other monitoring devices, so also there have been major advances in rat and mouse eradication from islands. Islands lend themselves to eradication programmes since, provided that strict bio-security measures are introduced and enforced, re-infestation can be prevented, whereas in any mainland situation re-infestation is inevitable. There have been some highly successful island eradication programmes, including from South Georgia, Macquaire Island off Australia and Campbell Island off New Zealand. All of these programmes have used helicopters with underslung spreaders that distribute pellets made of a cereal-based toxic bait. The spreaders are standard agricultural fertiliser spreaders fitted with a small Honda engine, and the bait generally used is one of the second-generation anticoagulants called Brodificoum.
The world centre for this eradication work is New Zealand, and it was that country that the RSPB turned to when it set about the planning stages of an eradication programme on Gough Island. Initially, the plan was to carry out the eradication programme in the winter of 2019, but this has now been postponed to 2020. The winter months are chosen because it is at that time that there are no birds nesting, and the mice are keen to find all food alternatives – making them eager for the toxic bait that is used in the eradication programme.
In August + September this year, a small specialised team travelled out on the SA Agulhas 2, the ship used by the South African Government to conduct their annual maintenance and team-change visit on Gough Island. This team was organised by the RSPB, and consisted of an eradication specialist and a specialist helicopter pilot (both from New Zealand), an aerial systems engineer, and a bird captivity and release specialist. The purpose of the visit was to have a detailed look at the site so that they could modify and confirm a master-plan for the operation, in order to give this expensive operation the highest possible chance of success.
The overall plan is that in the early winter of 2020, a logistical team will travel out to Gough Island, to take out stores and set up accommodation on the island – a team of around 30 people will be needed. The bird captivity and release specialist will be in this advance party. His role will be to set up a large aviary-type structure, and to capture a good number of buntings and moorhens to act as a security population. If these species suffer from poisoning of the toxic bait, at least there will be a protected reserve of such birds in captivity, available to be released when the active bait is no longer present on the island. The albatrosses and the rest of the sea birds do not pose a problem in this respect – the do not come to the island during this time of year, and in any case they do not eat while they are onshore.
Once all the on-island preparations have been completed, the dosing team will travel to the island on a second ship. This team will include four helicopters (one as a reserve) and a whole team of specialist pilots. The systems engineer sets out an electronic GPS-based grid pattern of the routes to fly to ensure 100% coverage – indeed each swath is arranged to give 50% coverage of the previous swath, thus arriving at a double dose of the toxic pellets for any given area. Two applications of bait would be spread, ideally 3 weeks apart for maximum effectiveness. The winter in these latitudes can be very severe, and it is anticipated that with any lull in the weather the team will have to work from dawn to dusk, to seize the opportunity before the weather closes in again.
No-one is pretending that the task will be simple. Mice are more difficult to eradicate than are rats, partly because they can find protection from the weather (and the toxic bait) in all sorts of caves and holes. The whole project is expected to cost in the region of £9 million. The success of the project will be measured by two elements. Firstly, 100% kill of the mouse population is needed. If a single breeding pair remain, then the breeding birds will just have a short respite until the mouse population once again builds up to the present levels. Secondly, it is vital that the bio-security arrangements in Cape Town and on the island must be so thorough and so effective that there is no possibility of the re-introduction of mice in the future. I am sure that everyone involved in the project knows full well that they have just one chance to succeed.
With the development of the society in such a very remote place as Tristan da Cunha, going back over 200 years, it is not surprising that there are some extraordinary aspects to the people on the island, both as far as individual people are concerned, and also relating to how some noteworthy social customs have developed. That is not, however, the limit to the incidence of extraordinary people on the island. Some of the expat staff stationed here certainly fit into this category, and some of the visitors also deserve a mention. All in all, it seems that through its extreme remoteness the island does nurture and attract people who are extraordinary!
Through the eyes of a visitor to the island, some of the working practices are remarkable. In particular it is astonishing how all members of the community come together for specific work tasks. For example, when a ship has to be unloaded everyone leaves their normal places of work and becomes part of the unloading team – working as a stevedore on the ship, manning the barges bringing cargo into the harbour, driving a relay of tractors and trailers from the harbour to the warehouse, unpacking crates, and being part of a human chain to stack boxes in the warehouse. There are other events when an ‘all hands day’ can be declared – for example when everyone is needed to replace a roof on a house.
There are also the examples of remarkable people in connection with the island fishing industry. For the most part, fishing on Tristan means crayfish fishing. Each boat is crewed by two men, and eleven small open boats go out on the days that have been declared as ‘fishing days’. The boats make a very early start, the little boats wallow horribly in the water particularly when they are not making way when the pots are being hauled. The boys leave the harbour at first light, and in the shoulder months the low temperatures and the chill factor can be really testing. Every man a hero!
Once the crayfish are landed, they are transported to the factory. The people who work at the factory are also remarkable. During the week it is largely pensioners who do this work, some of them approaching the age of 80. They may work for 8 hours or more during the day, or in the evening the factory siren may call them out for an evening shift of anti-social hours. The Tristan fishing industry is dependent on this reliable and loyal work-force. It is another example of the extraordinary people of Tristan.
It should not be thought that all Tristanians are alike – they may come together for specific tasks, but they are generally highly individual. The population today is just 250 people, and I could probably detail them one by one to show how a high proportion of them are individually extraordinary – but that would not go down well on the island. I must not be seen to have any sort of bias or favouritism!
At any one time, there are around 12 – 15 expatriates stationed on Tristan. For example, at present these include three teachers, a doctor and a nurse, the Administrator, a finance man, a factory manager and engineer, a retail specialist, and an agriculturalist (me!), as well as a short-term postdoctoral researcher from the Natural History Museum. Most of these expats are on 2-year contracts, except for the Administrator who is generally here for three years and the doctor who may be here for five months. In a general sense, the expats can be described as being extraordinary. They have committed themselves to spending a couple of years on a tiny island where the facilities are extremely limited (shops, restaurants, healthcare facilities, etc), where they leave behind family and friends, and for the most part where the opportunities for professional contact and CPD (Continuous Professional Development) are quite limited. These privations are not for everyone!
As a result of Tristan’s location, deep in the South Atlantic, there are many scientists and specialists who come to the island. In the course of the two years that we have been here somewhere over 140 people have passed through. These may be fisheries experts, conservation specialists, seal experts or bird professionals. They may be South African personnel going to Gough Island for a 12-month tour of duty, or the team coming off Gough after their 12-month stint. They may be the construction staff who built the new health centre, many of whom had experience in Antarctica. Or they may be specialists in seismology, volcanology, global magnetism or nuclear detection. It is a real experience for the people on Tristan, both Tristanians and expats, to be able to have contact with all of these visitors, many of whom can be described as extraordinary.
Of special mention is the dentist from Edinburgh, who comes to the island every year for three week’s work, bringing her daughter with her. Her much-travelled daughter slots back into the little school on Tristan, where she catches up with all her island friends. This must be the most extreme example of taking your child to work with you!
We also have a small number of tourist-related people coming to the island. A few small cruise ships make a visit, weather permitting, as do a small number of sailing yachts. That gives us a further chance to meet some more extraordinary people. I am thinking here of the two Dutch men in a yacht, who stopped off to buy some groceries and then continued on to Melbourne and finally Adelaide, stopping off on the way at Les Isles de la Desolation. I am also thinking of the young girl who sailed single-handed from Sweden to Tristan – real adventurers come to Tristan! And how about the cruise-ship tour guide who came earlier this year – it materialised that before that job, she had joined her partner on a small wooden yacht deep in Brazil. They sailed the ‘wrong way’ round Cape Horn, and in two years they sailed back to Norway – in fact she made history by becoming the first Norwegian female ever to sail through the North West Passage. After passing eastwards through the North West Passage, they of course passed Baffin Island – this is the home of another extraordinary visitor we had here for a few weeks this year!
Tristan da Cunha can not in any way claim to be particularly high tech. In a practical sense, levels of both mechanisation and automation are well behind most other countries. There is no system for the use of credit cards, and there is no mobile phone system. Government and Departmental accounts have only just been digitalised, and the internet is not at all reliable, to say the least.
Yet, the island is home to some of the most high-tech installations imaginable.
The UN organisation CTBTO has a monitoring station on Tristan. The Comprehensive (Nuclear) Test Ban Treaty Organisation was formed in 1996. Over 180 countries have signed up to the Treaty. In the original documentation there were 44 countries listed as being countries with nuclear capability, and signatures from all of these were needed before the Treaty could become Law. It is noteworthy that 8 of these countries have yet to sign (China, Egypt, India, Iran, Pakistan, Israel, N. Korea and the U.S.A.)
The history of nuclear testing goes back to 1945, when the U.S.A. tested a device in New Mexico. Between then and 1996, over 2,000 tests were carried out worldwide. Of these, 1,032 were carried out by the U.S.A., 715 by the Soviet Union, and 210 by France. Between 1945 and 1980, nuclear tests have totalled 510 Mt (mega-tons), of which the atmospheric tests totalled 428 Mt – equivalent to 29,000 Hiroshimas.
Since 1996, there have been just 10 nuclear tests. India and Pakistan each carried out 2 tests during a period of sabre-rattling in 1998, and North Korea has been responsible for 6 tests. All of these tests were detected by the CTBTO.
This is the background to the CTBTO. The monitoring station on Tristan is one of about 250 around the world, with around 320 eventually planned. Clearly, the island is wonderfully well placed to host a monitoring station, in that any signals that are detected can be accurately triangulated with other monitoring stations in countries on either side of the Atlantic Ocean – and there are no land areas anywhere near that could provide the same service!
Each CTBTO monitoring station measures, with extreme accuracy, a number of parameters that are able to detect and record that a nuclear explosion has taken place. The wealth of information that is generated is transmitted in real-time to the IDC – International Data Centre – in Vienna, where the central computer system can immediately identify that a nuclear explosion has taken place, and exactly the location of the explosion.
On Tristan, as is the case with all the other CTBTO monitoring stations, three distinct physical parameters are monitored.
A network of sensors monitors infrasound waves, using micro barometers which are able to detect minute infrasound pressure waves.
Air quality is monitored, the sampling being aimed at detecting evidence of nuclear activity as well as being able to determine the type of nuclear device.
Seismic movement is detected by a group of 3-axis seismometers – information from these instruments could also be useful in giving advance warning of active volcanic activity on the island.
The first category of sensors takes place on the Western Plain, beyond the Potato Patches. There are five separate sensing units, each having four sensing hub. Each hub has around 24 tubes radiating from it, like spokes of a wheel. The purpose of this arrangement is to average out all variations in infrasound waves, to arrive at a true reading. Computer triangulation of the signals received by the five sensing units determines also the direction of the nuclear explosion. Readings are sent by a microwave system to the station’s central computer, where they are computed and sent continuously via satellite link to Vienna. One of the five sensing units also has a chamber in which, as well as the electronic package that looks after the infrasound information, there is a seismometer, ready to sense and calculate any tremor in the earth’s surface at that point. As part of the fail-safe technology that is part of the station, whenever the cover is opened on the chamber notification is instantly sent to Vienna.
The remaining elements of the CTBTO station are all to be found in a cluster in the field immediately to the west of the Settlement. For determining air quality, there are two distinct systems used. The first machine is called Snow White, which is manufactured in Finland. This unit samples 20,000 cubic metres of air each day, collecting all particles in the air onto a filter pad, which is then removed and compressed into a wafer by processing it in a hydraulic press at 400 bar pressure. After 24 hours, the wafers are placed in a spectrometer, which is able to identify around 12 substances that are known to be produced by nuclear explosions. The technology that is required in this process is impressive, and it requires temperatures below -220 Centigrade, and electrical voltages of over 2,000V. The second system is made in Sweden and is called Sauna. This unit samples the noble gas xenon, and identifies the isotopes of that gas. In the event of a nuclear explosion, the ratio between the four isotopes will determine what sort of bomb is being detected.
Seismometers are also located in chambers nearby.
The CTBTO station is managed by a French company, with a French station manager on the island. For the last two years, Leo Duval was on Tristan. We have just had a handover to the new station manager Maxim Sanders, with Maxim Le Maillot actually doing the handover. Maxim Le Maillot was Leo’s predecessor, so he knew well the island and the installation. Each of these station managers are known on the island as “Frenchie”, which is a simple system for most of the year but which can cause a little confusion when there are two of them here!
There are two other monitoring stations on the island. The first is a station that was set up in 2004 by Austrian Jurgen Matzka for the Danish Magnetic Institute. Jurgen is now with the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) who now have taken over the station. This station measures changes in the Earth’s magnetism. Generally, these changes reflect changes in the Earth’s core, but they can also react to local influences such as the construction of the new hospital, or even someone with metal buttons on his jacket walking too close to the sensing unit. The station is accurate enough to measure changes in magnetism of one thousandth of a degree, which Jurgen likens to kicking a football through a goal which is 500km distant!
Finally, in the same field there is a third monitoring station. This one is operated by the USGS (US Geological Survey) and consists of seismometers that are specifically set up to monitor volcanic activity, earthquakes and landslides. The information from these seismometers is continuously being monitored in the United States. The USGS was set up in 1879, and is set up to monitor a wide range of natural sciences around the world.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 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.
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”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.