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St Helena

Last edited: Feb 7, 2022, 3:48 PM

About the territory

St Helena was first discovered by the Portuguese navigator, Joao da Nova in 1502. The Dutch formally claimed the Island in 1633 but there is no evidence that they ever occupied it and they had abandoned it by 1651. In 1659 a British fleet, commanded by Captain John Dutton, arrived with the first settlers and some slaves from the Cape Verde Islands. Despite an attempt by the Dutch to retake the island in 1673 it has remained British ever since. Until 1834 the colony was administered by the East India Company but subsequently came under direct British rule. It acted as a prison for Napoleon Bonaparte and, subsequently, for up to 6 000 Boer prisoners in 1900-02. In 1840 the Island was also host to a Vice Admiralty Court which tried the captains and crews of ships carrying slaves from Africa mainly to Brazil. During much of the twentieth century there was little work on St Helena, other than in a declining flax industry, and many of the males went to Ascension Island or the UK to obtain employment.

Map of St Helena

Although the islanders lost their status as UK citizens under the British Nationality Act of 1980 they regained it in 2002.

St Helena Island lies at 15o 56’ south and 5o 43’ west. It is 1950 km west of Angola and 2900 km east of Brazil and has an area of about 122 km2. The temperatures range between 15oC and 26oC in the winter and 20oC and 32oC in the summer with it normally being 5-6o lower in the central areas. Rainfall peaks in April and then again in August. Average Annual rainfall is 152mm on the coast but can be up to a metre in the central highlands.

In the 2016 census the population of St Helena was 4,354. The Island’s main economic activities are agriculture and fishing. The Island is principally financed by aid from the UK although there are a few hundred tourists each year.

Until 2017 the island was served by the last working mail ship, the RMS St Helena, and the only way on and off the island. In 2017 the mail ship was retired and islands’ isolation was broken by the opening of the first airport, with weekly flights to South Africa, and monthly flights to Ascension Island. A cargo ship arrives from South Africa on a monthly basis.

Biodiversity

The Kew online herbarium states that there of 470 plant species on St Helena, the vast majority (c 85%) are introduced with only 45 being endemic and 15-20 native to the island. Eight endemic species are now thought to be extinct whilst the remainder are scarce and may be critically endangered. Of 23 moss species and 20 liverwort species 12 and 11 respectively are endemic. Sixteen of the 52 lichen species are endemic. Around 300 endemic invertebrate species have been described and over 150 of 256 beetle species are also endemic. Two echinoderms and three starfish are endemic with a few more species restricted to St Helena and Ascension Island. Out of 138 species of fish, ten are endemic and a further sixteen restricted to St Helena and Ascension Islands.

The St Helena Plover (Wirebird) (Charadrius sanctaehelenae) is the only endemic bird species although there are eight known species of breeding seabird and 10 other breeding landbird species, all but one of which has been introduced. There are no native reptile, amphibian or mammal species on the island other than Green Turtles, nesting of which has almost been extirpated. There is one introduced amphibian, Gray’s Stream Frog (Strongylopus grayii) and one introduced reptile, the Asian House Gecko (Hemidactylus frenatus).

Policy and legislation

St Helena has an Environment Charter signed jointly with the UK Government. Guiding Principle 7 is to safeguard and restore native species, habitats and landscape features, and control or eradicate invasive species. Under the associated commitment 2 the government of St Helena will ensure the protection and restoration of key habitats, species and landscape features through legislation and appropriate management structures and mechanisms, including a protected area policy, and attempt the control and eradication of invasive species. Subsequently, a strategy for action to implement St Helena’s commitments under the Environment Charter was drawn up in 2005. Responsibility for overseeing the delivery of the action plan rests with the Environmental Management Division (EMD). Implementation progress was reviewed in 2007, 2010 and 2016, read the 2016 review report (external link).

A South Atlantic Invasive Species Strategy and Action Plan agreed by the Governments of Ascension Island, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands was published in October 2010. This set out a number of strategic aims for the South Atlantic Overseas Territories in order to develop effective prevention and response measures for invasive species and thus reduce damage to their natural heritage, communities, livelihoods and options for future development. Key actions are grouped under five objectives: (A) Building awareness and support; (B) Co-ordination, co-operation and capacity-building; (C) Prevention; (D) Monitoring, early detection and rapid response; (E) Control, management and restoration.

The first Biosecurity Policy was endorsed in 2015.

In 2020 new biosecurity legislation is being developed for St Helena, with provisions for pre-border, border and post-border regulation of invasive species.

Invasive species and biosecurity

A total of 788 non-native species (marine and terrestrial) was recorded for Anguilla by the RSPB Stocktake (Churchyard et al 2014).

Taxon

Total species

Non-native species

Invertebrates

1,896

436

Vertebrates

213

13

Plants

823

339

Problems with invasive non-native species

Overall, non-native species are well recorded on St Helena. Invasive plant species dominate St Helena’s flora. Examples include New Zealand Flax (Phormium tenax) which covers huge upland areas.  Bull Grass (Juncus tenuis) is regarded as reducing the suitability of Wirebird nesting sites. Five habitat transforming species are currently undergoing rapid range expansion and threaten the management of national conservation areas: white weed (Austroeupatorium inulifolium), creeping fuchsia (Fuchsia coccinea), pheasant tail fern (Nephrolepis cordifolia), Cape fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) and Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius).

There is a large range of introduced plant pests, some of which cause significant damage to agricultural and horticultural crops (eg cabbage aphid (Brevicoryne brassicae), Cottony Cushion Scale (Icerya purchasi), a tortricid moth (Cryptophlebia leucotreta), and the Mediterranean Fruit Fly (Ceratitis capitata)). A scale insect (Orthizia insignis) which attacks the last surviving stands of endemic gumwood trees (Commidendrum spp) was brought under biological control by the introduction of the ladybird Hyperaspis pantherina in 1994.

Mynah Birds (Acridotheres tristis) take the eggs and hatchlings of Wirebirds, depredate fruit trees and other crops and are implicated in the spread of seeds from exotic plant species. Cats (Felis catus) are regarded as being largely responsible for the demise of St Helena’s historic seabird colonies. House mice (Mus musculus) may raid Wirebird nests and are implicated in the decline of endemic snails and other invertebrates. Rabbits (Orytolagus cuniculus) and sheep (Ovis aries) can seriously damage native vegetation as well as impacting pasture land.

Invasive flax covering the hillside; Endemic gumwood tree infested with invasive Jacaranda bug; Peach under attack from the Mediterranean fruit fly

L-R: Invasive flax covering the hillside; Endemic gumwood tree infested with invasive Jacaranda bug; Peach under attack from the Mediterranean fruit fly

Priority invasive non-native species and actions

Flax clearance and tree fern thicket restoration has occurred at High Peak and Diana’s Peak.

Endemic plants at Diana’s Peak, looking down onto flax covered slopes.

Endemic plants at Diana’s Peak, looking down onto flax covered slopes.

Goats, which have significantly modified the landscape in the past were removed from the island in the 1960s. An eradication campaign against feral Donkeys (Equus asinus) has been largely successful, although pockets remain. Trapping of cats have largely reduced their feral populations in recent years. Poisoning campaigns against both species of rats were carried out in urban areas in the 1990s and there is ongoing action against them in rural areas.

There are a number of successful biological control programmes against plant pests, with a total of eight biocontrol agents introduced for the control of seven agricultural pests between 1998 and 2000 as part of the UK government’s Integrated Pest Management Project. 

Biosecurity

In 2017 a biosecurity gap analysis (PDF) was completed. St Helena Island is one of the territories with the greatest biosecurity capacity having been the subject of a recent 4-year project to build capacity in biosecurity in anticipation of air access. Biosecurity provisions cover both terrestrial and marine species, as well as both agricultural and environmental threats.

Guidelines for risk analysis have been developed, defining three categories of risk depending on familiarity with the commodity. This was expanded, with training and the development of simplified pest risk assessment templates under a CABI-led Darwin Plus project (DPLUS074) which ended in 2020.

Contingency plans have been prepared for a range of invasive species threats, and approved by the national Resilience Forum. Border operations are good for both phytosanitary and zoosanitary risks, with widespread public awareness and compliance. Rapid response capacity is good across all taxa.

In 2018 a pathway analysis (PDF) was completed. Despite air access, pathways of introduction remain relatively few, with passenger flights from South Africa around once a week, with a monthly air link to Ascension Island. Cargo comes mainly from the UK and South Africa via a monthly cargo ship from South Africa.

Horizon scanning was carried out in 2019, identifying a total of 57 new invasive species of concern which have the potential to arrive within the next 5 – 10 years; read a report on the horizon scanning (PDF).  

Projects

The South Atlantic Invasive Species project (SAIS) (external link) was undertaken during the period December 2006 to December 2009. It was funded by the Ninth European Development Fund and carried out by the RSPB in partnership with the Governments of Ascension Island, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falkland Island, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, Falklands Conservation and the St Helena National Trust. The overall goal of the SAIS project was to enhance the economic prosperity and quality of life of the people of the UK Overseas Territories (OTs) in the South Atlantic through the reduction of the threat that invasive species pose to the native biodiversity of the South Atlantic UKOTs. In 2010 a SAIS Strategy and Action Plan (external link) was developed, and in 2015 a regional workshop was held in 2015 in Ascension Island to implement key actions.

A total of thirteen projects (external link) were funded under the Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP) between 2004 and 2012. Projects included restoration of a functioning Bastard Gumwood Commidendrum rotundifolium population, securing the endemic Wirebird Charadrius sanctaehelenae population through invasive predator control, setting up a monitoring scheme for seabirds and turtles, development of field guides, nature trails and amenities.

St Helena has received a number of Darwin Initiative funded projects, listed below. Find further details (external link):

  • Rare plant census of St Helena (DPLUS0008)
  • Building capacity to develop and provide long term sustainability for St Helena's paper and card recycling unit (DPLUS014)
  • St Helena baseline assessment; a foundation for effective environmental management (DPLUS020)
  • Darwin Fellowship – MRes Carbon sequestration in community forests, St Helena (DPLUS024)
  • Conservation of the spiky yellow woodlouse and black cabbage tree woodland on St Helena (DPLUS025)
  • Securing St Helena’s rare Cloud Forest trees and associated invertebrates (DPLUS029)
  • Conserving the genetic diversity of St Helena's threatened endemic flora (DPLUS037)
  • Sustainable development and management of St Helena fisheries and marine tourism (DPLUS039)
  • Securing the future for St Helena’s endemic invertebrates (DPLUS040)
  • Waste to warmth - cardboard into insulation boards and fuel bricks (DPLUS050)
  • Water Security and Sustainable Cloud Forest Restoration on St Helena (DPLUS051)
  • Mapping St Helena’s Biodiversity and Natural Environment (DPLUS052)
  • Establishment of the national framework for invasive plant management in St Helena (DPLUS059)
  • Oceanographic influences on the St Helena pelagic ecosystem (DPLUS070)
  • Improving biosecurity in the SAUKOTs through Pest Risk Assessments (DPLUS074)
  • Sustainable fishery management for St Helena's lobster populations (DPLUS077)
  • Fragmented cloud forest habitat rehabilitation through innovative invasive plant management (DPLUS099)


A two-year project (Defra CR 0492), was carried out by CABI in January 2011, looking at the impact of invasive non-native species in the UK Overseas Territories in the South Atlantic and the potential for biological control. Read details of the project including the final report (external link).

The project Tackling invasive non-native species in the UK Overseas Territories was implemented between 2016 and 2020 to strengthen biosecurity in the OTs, funded by the UK government Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF). St Helena benefitted from a number of activities to strengthen its biosecurity, including: pathway analysis, horizon scanning, pathway action planning, legislative support for drafting biosecurity legislation, contingency planning for wildlife diseases, access to online learning, and technical support. Read further details.

The Blue Belt Programme seeks to enhance long-term sustainable marine protection strategies for the UKOTs, and provides £20 million of funding over 4 years (2016 to 2020), also funded by CSSF and delivered by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas). The Programme is assisting St Helena in the designation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA), through scientific research, provision of equipment and training, and advice on new fisheries legislation. In March-April 2019, the Blue Belt Programme and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) led a marine survey around Tristan da Cunha and St Helena. The survey, known as Discovery 100, took place on board the RRS Discovery and was a follow up to the 2018 survey on the RRS James Clark Ross. The aim of the survey was to improve understanding of the different marine ecosystems present within Tristan da Cunha and St Helena. Find reports and further information (external link).

St Helena was involved in the CSSF project Natural Capital in the Caribbean and South Atlantic Overseas Territories' (external link) from 2016 to 2019, and delivered to seven OTs by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC). The programme of work involves mapping and valuing the participating OTs natural capital assets through integrating ecological data, satellite data, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and economic assessments. The final project conference was held in St Helena in March 2019. 

Useful information

Information for visitors

Before travelling please ensure all items are clean, free from organic materials such as mud, faeces, seeds and invertebrates:

  • Check your footwear, outdoor clothing and day packs to make sure they are clean and free from weed seeds, mud, invertebrates and plant material. If possible we recommend that you travel with new outdoor clothing and equipment. Shake out or vacuum all the compartments and pockets before you pack.
  • If you have been camping, check that your tent and other equipment is clean, dry and free of dirt and invertebrates such as ants and spiders. Shake it out before you pack it up for travel and ensure no soil remains on tent pegs.
  • If you have been hiking, visiting a wilderness area, farm or zoo, make sure your footwear and clothes are clean and free from seeds, mud and faeces. Check boot soles for mud between the treads, Velcro fastenings for seeds and plant material, and shake out or vacuum pockets to remove any dirt and plant material.
  • If you are carrying golf, fishing or other sports and outdoor equipment with you, make sure they are clean, dry and free from dirt and any live creatures.

It is prohibited to import live plant material or animals without an import licence. Honey and bee products are also prohibited.

Biosecurity requirements for visitors and returning residents (external link)

Contact

Agriculture and Natural Resources Department

Scotland
St Helena
STHL 1ZZ

Tel: +290 24724

Documents

  • Barnsley, S., Cary, E., Pienkowski, M. and Wensink, C. (Eds) (2016).  Review of performance by 2016 of UK Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies in implementing the 2001 Environment Charters or their equivalents and moving towards the Aichi Targets and Sustainable Development Targets. UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum, April 2016.
  • Churchyard, T., Eaton, M., Hall, J., Millett, J., Farr, A., Cuthbert, R. and Stringer, C.  (2014). The UK’s wildlife overseas: a stocktake of nature in our Overseas Territories.  Sandy, UK: RSPB.
  • Edgar, P. (2010). The Amphibians and reptiles of the UK Overseas Territories, Crown Dependencies and Sovereign Base Areas: Species Inventory and Overview of Conservation and Research Priorities. Bournemouth, UK: Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.
  • Proctor, D. and Fleming, L. V., eds. (1999). Biodiversity: the UK Overseas Territories. Peterborough, UK: JNCC.
  • Sanders, S. M., ed. (2006). Important Bird Areas in the United Kingdom Overseas Territories. Sandy, UK: RSPB.
  • Varnham, K. (2006). Non-native species in UK Overseas Territories: a review. Peterborough, UK: JNCC Report No. 372.

Websites