17 March 2023
In November 2022 it was announced that a number of endemic trees within the Peaks National Park (PNP) had been discovered to be dying as a result of multiple plant pathogens, including a Phytophthora water mould. These pathogens were identified as part of the ongoing Darwin Plus funded project ‘Managing the pathogens threatening St Helena’s biodiversity and food security’.
As a result, some immediate actions were put into place. Sensitive areas of endemic tree planting at the George Benjamin Arboretum, She Cabbage and False Gumwood gene bank at Casons (near the carpark), and the Ginger Patch at High Peak were restricted to public access, and disinfectant footbaths were installed across the PNP as a biosecurity measure.
A small, multi-agency Task Group was also formed, and further work has been ongoing to get a better understanding of how widespread the diseases are and what we might be able to do about it.
What’s the issue?
Unfortunately, further research indicates that the diseases are present across the Peaks National Park, most notably around the PNP paths. As a water mould, Phytophthora lives in soil and attacks trees by rotting them from the root up. This means that it can be spread in many ways, but the fact that most disease is being observed in trees immediately next to paths suggests that the main method of spread is via the movement of soil and mud.
The impacts of this, and other pathogens, should not be underestimated.
The cloud forest is a vital habitat for nature and people. It provides a large amount of the Island’s water capture and supply, and has high concentrations of the Island’s endemic plants and invertebrates. The endemics here are not only very rare but are also very isolated. This makes it a sensitive conservation site, placing the unique and rare biodiversity within it at risk.
Where similar pathogens have been found elsewhere around the world, they have been known to spread widely and have significant negative impacts on the forests affected. It is therefore necessary to take precautionary action to try to slow the spread.
What is being done?
The Task Group put in place in November 2022 installed biosecurity stations in the PNP to help limit the spread from visitors, whilst also scoping possible measures to help manage the issue effectively. This has evolved with the formation of two further groups.
A Technical Advisory Group has been formed with a view to identifying and filling the gaps in our current understanding of the issue through research and liaison with other international experts. This has technical experts from the St Helena Research Institute, the UK Animal and Plant Health Agency, the Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International. In addition, an Operational Management Group is focusing on the local response, including surveillance and monitoring of the various pathogens
Although understanding of the issue is still developing, it is clear that action needs to be taken now to help prevent the spread of the pathogens. Work plans for staff and researchers working on or visiting the PNP are being revised and reprioritised, and any non-priority work has been paused so that the number of people accessing the Peaks is reduced.
Alongside this, a legislative mechanism to allow management of access to the PNP, which will include formal access restrictions, is actively being developed for Executive Council consideration, before further consideration at a formal sitting of Legislative Council.
What can I do?
Although access to the National Park is not legally restricted at the moment, we ask everyone to consider avoiding the Peaks to prevent further spread of the pathogens. If formal access restrictions are ultimately put in place in the future, we ask that these are respected. Such restrictions would only be put in place to help safeguard the Island’s precious habitats and endemics, and we ask that everyone plays their part in trying to achieve this aim.
Further information on this matter will be made available in due course, including if any formal legal restrictions on access are put into effect.
In you would like any additional information in the meantime, please contact ENRP Portfolio Director, Darren Duncan, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Chief Environmental Officer, Isabel Peters at email@example.com or by telephone on 24724 for both officers.
17 March 2023