UK Overseas Territories team blog
Kew’s UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) team helps to conserve the unique biodiversity of the 16 far-flung island groups and peninsulas which make up the UKOTs.
We work with partners in-Territory and from other UK biodiversity organisations to develop and implement practical conservation projects which support the UKOTs in implementing the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation. This blog follows the conservation activities of the UKOTs team at Kew and overseas. Our welcome blog post gives an overview of the UKOTs Programme.
Capacity building is an important part of Kew’s work and is vital to help realise successful and lasting plant conservation in places where it is needed most.
October saw another example of the diverse ways in which Kew works to help the UK Overseas Territories secure the future of their great plant diversity. Partners from all five of the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories (Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and the Turks and Caicos Islands) gathered at the Turks and Caicos Islands’ National Environment Centre (NEC) for a workshop on seed conservation.
Seed conservation workshop
The meeting was generously hosted by TCI’s Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs, as part of a project to establish local seed banks in the UKOTs. The project, funded through Darwin Plus, the Darwin Initiative’s Overseas Territories Environment and Climate Fund, is enabling our partners to target their highest conservation priority plants for collecting and banking in-country, where they will be available for use in propagation and conservation work. Duplicate collections will also be stored at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, for additional long-term security.
As well as providing an opportunity to cover the most important principles behind seed conservation, the meeting also allowed my MSB colleague Janet Terry and me to give participants practical experience of many of the skills required to make and process high quality collections of seeds. This included heading out into the Turks and Caicos Islands bush to put into practice all of the seed quality and sampling considerations you need when collecting.
We were even able to make a collection of one of the Caicos Islands’ inconspicuous yet alluring endemics, Stenandrium carolinae.
Stenandrium carolinae, found only in the Caicos Islands (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
Back at the NEC, participants were able to have a go at cleaning various fruit types, from dry grass seed heads to fleshy berries, using sieves and rubber matting.
Participants learn how to clean seed collections with Janet Terry (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
The Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs’ native plant nursery
We also visited the Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs’ native plant nursery on North Caicos, itself developed through support from the Overseas Territories Environment Programme, a predecessor of Darwin Plus. Here, essential propagation work on the threatened native Caicos pine is underway, as well as propagation of other important native species. It was a great opportunity to explore the possibilities offered by the capacity to store seed locally in supporting such valuable conservation work.
The Turks and Caicos Native Plants Nursery (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
Our partners have now returned home, equipped with the skills needed to save the seeds of their most important plant species, as well as having forged new links with colleagues across the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories.
Project partners from Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Cayman, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands and RBG Kew (Image: C.A.Samuel, Anguilla Department of Environment)
- Tom -
- The project is funded by the Darwin Initiative’s Darwin Plus Fund
Our project partners
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Working with the National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands, the UKOTs team visited several islands over the course of three weeks to record the locations of some of the rare plants that are under threat in their native habitats.
Collecting fruits from a spiny Mammillaria nivosa on Tortola (Photo: Sara Barrios)
As well as collecting preserved specimens and DNA samples for formal identification back at Kew, the team harvested seeds and/or cuttings to be propagated either at the JR O’Neal Botanic Garden on Tortola (the largest island in BVI) or in Kew’s plant nurseries. Martin, Sara and Marcella recorded the highlights (and some of the hazards they faced) during their expedition.
Day 6 – Tortola
For the first time, we located several trees of Eugenia sessiliflora, a very rare plant from the same family as clove trees and eucalyptus (Myrtaceae), which occurs only in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Some of the trees were in flower and fruit so we were able to collect seeds as well as shoot cuttings for growing on at the gardens.
The propagating team with Eugenia sessiliflora and Rondeletia pilosa (Photo: Sara Barrios)
Day 7 – Fallen Jerusalem
Today we visited the small island of Fallen Jerusalem, a BVI National Park. A previously unknown population of poke-me-boy (Acacia anegadensis) was found here a couple of years ago by our colleague, Colin. We managed to survey part of the island, where we found the remaining trees of A. anegadensis and recorded these locations with a GPS (global positioning system) device. DNA samples were taken for further research.
Preparing plant specimens for pressing and drying on Fallen Jerusalem (Photo: Sara Barrios)
Day 8 – Virgin Gorda
An exciting discovery today! We collected a plant very similar to wirewist (Metastelma anegadense) in flower and fruit growing on Virgin Gorda. When we get the specimen back to the Herbarium at Kew, we will be able to confirm its identity. Wirewist was previously described as endemic to the flat limestone island of Anegada. Virgin Gorda has volcanic terrain, very different from Anegada’s flat dry landscape. Although it has now been found on two islands, wirewist is still unique to the British Virgin Islands.
Metastelma anegadense in flower and fruit (Photo: Sara Barrios)
Day 11 – Tortola
Although we’re all passionate about plants, there are some which we’re less enthusiastic about – today we encountered a very dense patch of a liana known locally as ‘catch and keep’. This is Acacia retusa with seriously sharp, backward-pointing thorns, which do just what the name implies. Once you’ve been caught by the thorns, they really keep hold of you!
Day 12 - Anegada
Today’s sad news was finding some of BVI's most endangered species just bulldozed down on Anegada. We found a large poke-me-boy (Acacia anegadensis) tree by the side of the road and mad dog shrubs (Malpighia woodburyana) had been cleared. These species, which are already considered threatened with extinction, due to their very restricted distribution, are being cleared to make way for wider, paved roads.
Day 13 – Beef Island
Despite the hoards of mosquitoes which harassed us during our fieldwork on Beef Island, we were all thrilled to come across more trees of Eugenia sessiliflora, a new record for this island. More herbarium specimens were collected together with extra cuttings to take to Kew and JR O’Neal Botanic Garden’s plant nurseries.
Day 18 – JR O’Neal Botanic Garden
Following our fieldwork we’re based in the JR O’Neal Botanic Garden, helping out with the propagation of some of the BVI’s native plants to get them ready for a new display. The Governor of the Islands, Boyd McCleary, paid the Garden a visit to find out more about the work Kew has been doing in collaboration with the National Parks Trust.
Governor's visit to J R O'Neal Botanic Garden
Having completed all the paperwork relating to the Convention on Biological Diversity, plant export and plant health regulations, we shipped our specimens to Kew today. In total: 27 DNA samples, 264 herbarium specimens, 22 spirit samples, seeds from 9 species and cuttings from 5 native species. These will all be of enormous value in helping us to understand the vegetation of BVI and in trying to develop reliable methods of cultivating plants that have never before been grown outside the islands. It will also help to inform the conservation status of the species we encountered and will guide future conservation action.
- Martin, Sara and Marcella -
- Read about our discovery and conservation of plants in the British Virgin Islands on Storify
- Assessing the coastal biodiversity of Anegada to support the development of a Biodiversity Action Plan for the island
- Developing Ex Situ Conservation Collections of UK Overseas Territories Plant Species In-Territory and at Kew
- Integrating National Parks, Education and Community Development for the British Virgin Islands
- UKOTs Online Herbarium
- Blog post: Collecting and growing native plants of the British Virgin Islands
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Thistles are vigorous, spiny plants which thrive in a range of habitats. In the Falklands they typically spread from core populations in moist, neutral grassland (locally called ‘greens’) or disturbed areas into coastal and heathland habitats.
Richard Lewis applying weed killer to calafate (Berberis microphylla), one of the most serious spiny invasive weeds in the Falkland Islands
These invasive plants come from the UK, accidentally introduced as weed seeds on people or goods arriving in the islands. They are taller than most native and pasture plants and aren’t eaten by livestock or local insects, so they out-compete some of the islands’ rarest plants. They are also bad news for local sheep farmers, displacing nutritious pasture grasses and helping spread disease amongst sheep. In addition any spines that get caught in fleeces injure shearers and lower the market value of wool.
Working together to stop the thistles spreading
Co-operation has been vital to the success of this work. Not only are we working with Falklands Conservation (FC) and Falkland Islands Government (FIG), but many local farmers and landowners, local conservation workers and volunteers, the Falklands Department of Agriculture (DoA), Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Ministry of Defence (MoD), Interserve Defence Ltd and the Mount Pleasant Airbase (MPA) conservation group have all contributed significantly to research, practical action and funding. Additional funds have come from Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP), European Union and Kew’s Bentham-Moxon Trust.
Thanks to all their work over several years, old plant records have been followed up, areas surveyed, baseline data collected and an Invasive Species Action Plan has been drawn up and control measures including weedkillers and ‘chisel hoes’ have been successfully trialled. The examples below illustrate the different biology and histories of the three known species in the Falklands. However, there are several more thistle species in the UK which could be accidentally imported and the biosecurity work of the DoA will be of increasing importance to stop even more of these spiny weeds arriving.
The main culprits
Slender thistles (Carduus tenuiflorus) were first seen at a farm on West Falkland in the early 1980s. This biennial species was successfully controlled by the local farmer for several years and never spread far or increased in numbers. It is now believed extirpated from the islands. This highlights the value in taking action as early as possible, before a species becomes well established.
Creeping thistle (Cirsium arvense) is more widely established in several locations across the Falklands. In early 2012 a single, large patch was reported from Philimore Island, which is managed as a nature reserve. The MPA conservation group arranged a helicopter trip and volunteers to undertake initial control in December 2012, with follow-up control planned for future years. This species spreads by creeping rhizomes to form large patches, but has male and female flowers on separate plants. With just one patch on Philimore Island, arising from one individual plant, no seeds have been produced, and it is likely that this island can be declared thistle-free after a few years control and follow-up monitoring.
School children helping to control creeping thistle (Photo: Richard Lewis)
Unfortunately, spear thistles (Cirsium vulgare) are much harder to control. Although individual plants only live for two years, each plant sets hundreds or thousands of seeds, which can survive in the soil for decades. Fortunately, they are currently limited to only a handful of locations.
Volunteers controlling spear thistle on Saunders Island (Photo: Richard Lewis)
Saunders Island has one of the largest populations of this species, a particular concern owing to the status of the Island as an Important Plant Area (IPA). Home to several rare and threatened species, including the endemic, globally threatened hairy daisy (Erigeron incertus) and Antarctic cudweed (Gamochaeta antarctica), control of spreading invasives is urgent at this site. Several nearby islands, including further IPAs, are also at risk from wind-blown seeds. Control here is a high priority, but is logistically difficult and expensive as the plants are spread over several square kilometres in a remote part of the island.
To prevent seeding, control is needed at least twice a year, potentially for several decades. Previous control has been effective in the densest parts of the population, close to the coast, but has been less effective higher up the hills, where the population appears to be expanding. Ongoing monitoring will allow reassessment of the thistle population. Although it will be a long time before success can be declared, we are in a strong position to continue this control programme and safeguard the plants and habitats not only of this IPA, but other islands nearby.
- Richard -
- Invasive Species in the UK Overseas Teritories
- Falkland Islands Native Plants Project
- Falkland Islands Plant Conservation
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A view of the Centre Hills from the northern end of Montserrat (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
For its size (just 39 square miles), Montserrat (dubbed the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean) is home to a diverse flora of around 700 native species, many of which are found only on the islands of the Lesser Antilles, with three restricted to this one island. However, the natural vegetation of Montserrat faces a number of significant threats. Volcanic activity over the last 18 years has destroyed a third of the island’s forests under pyroclastic flows and ash fall and likely destroyed one of Monsterrat’s endemic plants, Xylosma serrata, which has not been seen since the volcanic eruptions.
The Soufriere Hills volcano continues to smoulder (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
To compound this, with the south of the island declared an exclusion zone, the remaining residents (though much reduced in number as more than half have taken refuge overseas) have only the northern third of the island in which to rebuild their lives and economy, creating enormous challenges for sustainable development.
Collecting seed next to a house buried by volcanic ash (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
In June, I made my second visit to the island, to work with forestry staff of the Department of Environment in collecting seed from native plant species. Over the course of two weeks, we visited a variety of habitat types in the hunt for plants of interest which produce fruits. Of greatest significance are the forests of the Centre Hills, an area of dense vegetation protected by law, with dry forest at the lower elevations giving way to wetter forest at higher altitudes, and so-called ‘elfin woodland’ of smaller shrubs and trees topping the summits, which are frequently shrouded in clouds.
The forestry team are an invaluable presence in the field. They know the forest better than anyone else, leading me up the steep, densely forested ridges and deep ghauts (a Caribbean term for river valleys). It was a good opportunity for me to pass on seed collecting techniques, which they will be able to use to continue with the work of gathering seed throughout the year.
Examples of plants we collected from are Pilocarpus racemosus, a member of the citrus family (Rutaceae) found only in a few islands of the Caribbean, which produces lobed fruit that split open to release its black seeds, not unlike the fruit of star anise.
Fruit of Pilocarpus racemosus, a member of the Citrus family (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
We found a number of shrubby plants from the family Melastomataceae, which produce small juicy berries with many tiny seeds which are dispersed by birds that find the fruit tasty. These included Miconia impetiolaris, which is found across the New World tropics, and Tetrazygia discolor, found only in the eastern Caribbean and whose black berries are held in bunches very similar in appearance to elderberries.
Miconia impetiolaris, found in the New World tropics (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
Some much larger seeds which we collected were those of Ormosia monosperma, a large tree in the legume family. Their bright red and black seeds fallen on the forest floor stood out amongst the leaf litter. Wolfgang Stuppy gives a fascinating account of the deceiving nature of such brightly coloured seeds in his blog post.
The seeds of Ormosia monosperma, adapted to get the attention of birds (Image: Tom Heller, RBG Kew)
This expedition was immediately followed by the beginning of an exciting new Darwin Initiative-funded project to extend the Millennium Seed Bank Partnerships’ conservation work to all of the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories: Montserrat, Turks and Caicos Islands, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands and Anguilla. As well as enabling local collaborators to continue seed collecting across the region, the project will establish local seed banks so that the seed can be conserved in-country and at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank for the first time. Watch this space for future developments!
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For the last 9 months I have been interning with the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) team on the UKOTs Red List project. It has been a chance to learn a lot about conservation work and also to experience all that the team and Kew have to offer. I have had the opportunity to assess the conservation status (Red List) of species from the Caribbean UKOTs alongside staff and other volunteers, as well as attend lectures and events for other projects at Kew. My time at Kew has given me insight not only into the conservation work that the UKOTs team does, but all the other work, such as horticulture and visitor interaction, that happens at Kew.
Jean Linsky displaying a herbarium specimen
Red Listing Caribbean Species
In my project I am using a newly developed Conservation Assessment Module (CAM) within BRAHMS to assess the conservation status of Cordia and Varronia (Boraginaceae) species in the Caribbean. This involves gathering information through a mix of digitising specimens from Kew’s herbarium collections and consulting collections already in the UKOTs Online Herbarium. I referred to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) for collections from other herbaria. To gather ecological information on each species, I researched information from regional floras and worked with experts from the UK Overseas Territories.
The geo-referencing (locating the specimen on a map, based on information about where it was collected) of each specimen record is key to assessing the range of each species and I was lucky enough to be able to expand on the work of two previous interns, Alex Roberts and Andrew Budden, and to use mapping resources created by them.
The plant specimen records in the CAM are linked to GeoCAT, an online GIS tool used to assess how widespread the plant is and how much land area it covers. These are two of the criteria used in the Red Listing process. Once all the data for the assessments is collected in the CAM and a Red List Category is assigned, they will be submitted to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species for addition to the list and can then be used for international conservation planning.
Cordia rickseckerii growing in Puerto Rico (Image: Martin Hamilton)
A big highlight for me has been interacting with collaborators from the Turks and Caicos Islands as well as Puerto Rico; getting their ‘in the field’ knowledge has been invaluable to my assessments. Also, my involvement in the development of the Conservation Assessment Module has given me insight into the process of data management in conservation, not just the final product of an assessment. The CAM is (and will continue to be) a very, very useful tool for plant conservation.
Jean working on conservation assessments with Bryan Naqqi Manco, a conservation specialist in TCI
Beyond the Internship
My time at Kew has not been confined to the Herbarium or my desk. The ‘family sorts’ (a term used by teams at Kew for the meetings to identify plants collected from the field) allowed some close-up time with plant specimens. There were also many lectures given by both staff and members of the Kew Mutual Improvement Society (KMIS), with talks on all kinds of subjects including trips to Western Australia and the ‘waggle dance’ performed by bees in the hive! The opportunity to be involved in testing the eMonocot Key to Monocot Plant Families was a great way to find out the type of work done by other teams at Kew.
I am grateful to the UKOTs team for the opportunity I have had at Kew, as well as for the massive amount of conservation knowledge I have gained from them. I am glad to have been able to be a part of the development and progress of this Red List Project and look forward to hearing all about the future work the team does.
- Jean -
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UKOTs bloggers (left to right): Sara Bárrios, Pat Griggs, Colin Clubbe, Marcella Corcoran, Tom Heller, Martin Hamilton.
Using modern plant specimens collected in the field and historic specimens held in Kew’s Herbarium, together with detailed habitat descriptions and other field information, we are documenting the plant diversity of the UKOTs. We are making this information accessible via the UKOTs Online Herbarium. This resource, together with the field research, enables us to undertake conservation assessments, produce Red Lists of threatened species, and rank potentially invasive species – all of which underpin the development of management plans to protect the UKOTs’ plant heritage.
The UKOTs bloggers are:
- Colin Clubbe (Head of UKOTs and Conservation Training)
- Martin Hamilton (UKOTs Programme Co-ordinator)
- Marcella Corcoran (UKOTs Programme Officer – Horticultural Liaison)
- Sara Bárrios (UKOTs Programme Officer – GSPC Targets 1&2 OTEP Project)
- Pat Griggs (UKOTs Public Engagement Officer)
- Tom Heller (UKOTs Millennium Seed Bank Officer)
Seed conservation in the Caribbean UK Overseas Territories: An excellent project bringing together UKOTs partners from across the Caribbean. I am working in BVI ... by: Martin
Investigating the plants of the Caribbean... on the outskirts of London!: Dear Andrew, I was very interested in reading your blog. As part of a project I am working on I ... by: eva
Tackling a spiny threat in the Falkland Islands: Really great to see the community involved in the invasive species control work. Keep up the battle!. by: Martin
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