Restoring habitats in the Falkland Islands, one seed at a time
Erosion is one of the major threats to habitats in the Falklands. You only need to hop on one of the frequent local flights between islands to get a clear view of the extent of the problem. Large areas of bare ground, whether sand, clay or peat, extend beneath you and even overlap the recently assigned Important Plant Areas. Falklands Conservation (FC) has been awarded a Darwin Initiative Challenge Fund with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew as a project partner, to try to tackle this problem.
Alicky discussing pasture restoration with Ben Berntsen at Elephant Beach Farm (Image: Tom Heller)
Previous restoration work has principally focused on planting shoots of the charismatic tussac grass (Poa flabellata) or blue grass (Poa alopecurus) with some success. The current Challenge Fund will lay the foundations for a three year Darwin Plus project investigating the use of native seeds to re-vegetate a wider range of eroded substrates, with a more diverse array of native species and needing less planting effort.
The project offers an interesting and positive opportunity to marry biodiversity conservation with agriculture. Currently landowners and farmers are feeling the cost of erosion through the loss of productive pasture for sheep, and from dust contamination of the sheep’s fleeces. However, the only seed available for purchase in the Falklands is from non-native species which are often ill-adapted to the harsh growing conditions of the Falklands and have poor long-term survival. A number of farmers have already expressed an interest in using a native seed mix on their land if it could be shown to be successful.
Seed mixes for recolonisation and pasture
As the project officer I am tasked with making sizeable seed collections of 15 target species. The aim is to create two seed mixes, one that contains good coloniser species which rapidly provide ground cover and another containing a wider range of pasture species. The pasture mix is aimed at less degraded areas, for example following a fire, mine clearance, or the removal of invasive species. The species in the pasture mix have been chosen in consultation with the Department of Agriculture to include plants which are valuable for grazing.
Seed heads of native woodrush (Luzula alopecurus) (Image: Alicky Davey)
So far my experience of working in the Falklands has been very positive! Besides the beauty of the landscapes and the flora, I have benefitted hugely from the positive relationships FC fosters with the local community, landowners and military personnel.
Tom and Alicky in the field with volunteers (Image: Tim Carr)
I have been overwhelmed by the number of willing and energetic volunteers and I am very grateful for all the tireless hours of seed collection they have contributed so far. For the past two weeks I have been visited by Tom Heller from Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (read his experiences on the project below). It has been invaluable to have his expert advice on seed collection and handling. The end of his visit saw the shipment of collections to the Millennium Seed Bank and I am sure that there will be many more to follow before the end of the season. Watch this space!
High quality seed collections
This is my third visit to the Falkland Islands. I’m here to help Alicky with the task of collecting seed for planned trials of seed mixes, applying the methodologies used by the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership to ensure collections are of a high quality. Important considerations are the timing of the collection (the seed needs to be ripe), that populations are well sampled (capturing as much genetic diversity as possible, whilst being careful not to harm the wild population), and that the seed is handled carefully after collection to maintain its viability.
Alicky and a volunteer collecting seed of the grass Festuca magellanica (Image: Tom Heller)
Collecting seed can be a fiddly process at the best of times, and conditions in the Falklands often make it even more of a challenge. The frequent strong winds mean that all too often grass seed is blown off the plants as soon as it is ripe, making it difficult to get the timing right. It also makes it rather difficult to get the seed heads into a collecting bag without them blowing away!
However, with the help of dedicated volunteers, it is possible to make sizeable collections. Once the collection has been made, the seeds are put into an airtight plastic drum with a lining of silica gel at the bottom to help the seeds dry out, a process which greatly extends the lifespan of the seed. The seeds will be shipped to my colleagues at the Millennium Seed Bank where they will be cleaned and stored at -20°C until required for the trials back in the Falklands.
It’s great to come back to the Islands: the landscapes are breathtaking, the people welcoming, the wildlife charismatic, and of course the flora beautiful and unique.
- Alicky and Tom -