Seed conservation in the UK Overseas Territories
With many plant species in these places threatened by building developments, the spread of alien species and climate change, banking seeds in ‘ex situ’ collections is a valuable complement to ‘in situ’ approaches to conservation, such as protecting habitats and controlling invasive plants. As part of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership (MSBP), we have been helping our colleagues across the UKOTs to collect and store seeds of native plants to help secure their survival. As the person responsible for coordinating seed conservation programmes in the UKOTs, I have had the great pleasure of working with conservationists across many of the islands that make up most of the Territories, providing training and equipment, and so enabling our partners to collect seeds for long-term storage at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank (MSB), based at Wakehurst.
Tom Heller collecting seeds in the Falkland Islands, with Dr Rebecca Upson of Falklands Conservation.
The vaults in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank now hold seed from 380 different kinds of plants from thirteen of the UKOTs, in safe storage. These include the entire seed-bearing flora of the Antarctic continent (two species, collected from the British Antarctic Territory!), to many collections made from tropical islands of the Caribbean.
Collecting seeds of tea plant (Frankenia portulacifolia) on St Helena.
The extraordinary island of St Helena in the south Atlantic Ocean is home to relatively few species of native plants. However, most of these (an incredible 45 different kinds) are unique to the island (endemic), and are in great danger of becoming extinct, having endured several centuries of habitat loss through grazing, clearance and the spread of introduced plant species. With the dedication of teams of intrepid volunteers, the staff of St Helena’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Department and the National Trust, have been out scouring the difficult terrain of the island to collect seeds from these endemic plants, many of which are only to be found clinging to the island’s precipitous cliffs. As well as being the source of material for use in local propagation and restoration projects, it has been possible to bank seed of 27 of St Helena’s endemics at Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, including the St Helena neglected tuft sedge (Bulbostylis neglecta). This diminutive grass-like plant was only rediscovered on the island in 2008, having not been seen there since its original discovery in 1806.
Neglected tuft sedge (Bulbostylis neglecta), a plant unique to St Helena.
Almost 5000 miles away, in the Caribbean, the Turks and Caicos Islands form part of the Bahamas Archipelago. Although the islands are very different from St Helena in climate and topography, their native plants face similar threats from invading alien species, and tourist and residential developments also threaten many habitats on the islands. Working with the Department of Environment and Coastal Resources and the Turks and Caicos National Trust, it has been possible to bank 156 plant species, including five of the nine species unique to the islands. One such plant is the Turks and Caicos Island heather (Limonium bahamense), an endemic species of sea lavender, also the islands’ national flower.
Turks and Caicos Islands heather (Limonium bahamense).
As well as storing seed as a long term insurance against extinction in the wild, seed kept at Kew's MSB is being used in conservation and research projects around the world. Collections from the UKOTs are no exception. For example, seed collected from the Falkland Islands has been returning home for propagating in a native plant nursery in Stanley, where the resulting plants are being used to encourage Islanders to grow native plants in their gardens, rather than potentially invasive alien species. Seed from Kew's MSB has also been used in trial plots in the restoration of the vegetation in cleared minefields.
Although among the collections safely banked in Kew's MSB are 70 plant species unique to the UKOTs, there are still more than 100 endemics, and many more other native plants yet to be included, so we clearly have much more work to be getting on with!