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Restoring cleared minefields in the Falkland Islands

Colin Clubbe
20 April 2011

Restoring native vegetation on cleared minefield sites is just one of the many challenges facing conservationists in the Falkland Islands.

A member of Kew's UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) team, I am currently in the Falkland Islands for two weeks working with the Falkland Islands Government and local NGO, Falklands Conservation.
 

Colin experiences the cold autumn weather in the Falkland Islands (Image: RBG Kew)
 

Although my prime reason for being here is to facilitate next week’s workshop to review the Falkland Islands Biodiversity Strategy , I’m spending this week reviewing some of the plant conservation activity currently underway.

Yesterday I accompanied Falklands Conservation Plants Officer, Rebecca Upson, on a monitoring trip to Surf Bay a few kilometres east of Stanley, Falkland’s capital. The UK has ratified the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on their Destruction, often referred to as the ‘Ottawa Convention’. Article 5 of the Convention commits Parties to mine clearance on their sovereign territory and in response to this commitment the UK Government has undertaken clearance at four pilot sites in the Falkland Islands. One of these is the Surf Bay site.
 

Minefield on the Falkland Islands (Image: RBG Kew)
 

Mine clearance of the Surf Bay site was completed in June 2010. The Environmental Planning Department and Falklands Conservation co-ordinated a trial re-planting of the site, supported by lots of volunteers who turned out for two planting sessions, one in June and the second in October 2010. Tillers of tussac grass (Poa flabellata) were used in one area. Coastal tussac is a hugely important habitat for wildlife and one that has suffered very badly in the past from over-grazing by sheep. Restoration of coastal tussac is a major conservation priority for the Falkland Islands. This restoration site is looking really healthy and all the signs are that tussac responds very well to this type of restoration.
 

Tussac grassland restoration site (Image: RBG Kew)
 

A second coastal area has been planted up with the native blue grass (Poa alopecurus) and many of the tillers have more than doubled in size since the June plantings which is very encouraging.
 

Rebecca Upson measuring bluegrass tillers (Image: RBG Kew)
 

Bluegrass Dune Grassland is also a priority habitat in the Falkland Islands. Although its status is not fully known, current evidence suggests that it has also declined significantly due to grazing pressure.

Seed broadcasting

The inland part of the site that was originally Diddle-dee (Empetrum rubrum) dominated dwarf shrub heath has been divided into experimental blocks to investigate the success of seed broadcast as a restoration technique. The seed broadcast mix comprised three key native species - buttonwood (Leptinella scariosa), pig vine (Gunnera magellanica) and native rush (Juncus scheuchzerioides) - together with sheep’s sorrel (Rumex acetosella), an introduced species which helps to stabilise exposed peat. In some blocks this seed mix was broadcast directly onto the exposed sandy soil, in others the plant material removed during mine-clearance was replaced and the seed mix broadcast over this. Some control blocks were included where no seed was broadcast to see what would happen naturally without any conservation intervention. Although too early to see any real differences between these treatments, there are good signs of growth and establishment of native species which provides great encouragement that this type of restoration approach can be successful. Seed broadcasting as a technique is much less labour intensive than planting individual plants and, when resources are in short supply, any technique which is less resource-intensive has huge advantages. I think that a key need is to start the replanting as soon after mine clearance as possible;  with the high frequency of strong winds in the Falkland Islands, it is vital to try and stabilise the substrate as quickly as possible to prevent erosion.

Minefield clearance offers opportunities for restoration of vanishing habitats (Image: RBG Kew)

The team in the Falkland Islands is really dedicated and with continued support not only can the UK meet its landmine clearance commitments in the next ten years, but this pilot gives every indication that these sites can be reclaimed for native habitats – successful conservation practice in action – inspirational. 

- Colin -

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