Fourteen million years ago volcanic activity gave birth to a small island in the middle of the South Atlantic. For 99.997% of this time the island was left to its own devices. Mankind did not know of its existence until the 21st of May 1502 when the Portuguese named it St Helena, after the saint commemorated on the day of its discovery. The Portuguese did not establish any permanent settlements. The British colonised it in 1659, establishing a permanent settlement immediately.
Just 50 years later a in a report from the Governor in Council he complained:
‘The Island in 20 years time will be utterly ruined for want of wood, for no man can say there is one tree in the Great Wood, or other wood less than 20 years old. Consequently it will die with age.’
The Great Wood was the largest expanse of forest within St Helena’s 123 square kilometres (47 square miles). As such, it was home to an unknown number of birds, plants and insects now extinct. The Great Wood was entirely destroyed as settlers cut down the trees for firewood, used the bark for tanning – thereby unnecessarily killing them, and allowed goats and other introduced animals to graze on the saplings.
The site of the Great Wood became semi-desert. In the summer months particularly, the hot south westerly winds sucked all the moisture from the ground, turning the soil to sand. Soil erosion is still a big problem on this windward side of theIsland.
The decision was made to embark upon an historic reforestation project which would inevitably need to continue for decades if most of the area previously occupied by the Great Wood was again to become an established forest. The enormity of the task is magnified by the miniscule size of St Helena and the resources available on the Island for a project of this sort.
The area designated for reforestation was named The Millennium Forest. The project was launched in 2000 with tremendous energy from the Island community. Virtually every Islander paid for a tree with many of them planting their tree themselves. During this first phase about 3,000 trees were planted, a car park laid out and a gatehouse built. By 2012, about 35 hectares have been planted with 10,000 trees. The total land area designated for reforestation has been extended in the course of the last thirteen years and is now 250 hectares.
The reforestation work now in hand is the toughest phase of the entire cycle of events. The project currently supports just two forestry workers who are constantly involved with watering and feeding trees as well as planting new areas. They have to combat problems caused by infestation, particularly mealy bug, and invasive growth of alien species which can overrun saplings. The failure rate in newly planted areas can be high and re-planting is another sizeable aspect of the workload. Currently there are 6,000 gumwoods growing in the Millennium Forest. An estimated 55,000 further plantings are required to cover the entire area designated for forest.
A plentiful supply of cheap water is a necessity in this arid area. Fortunately this is available. However, when the water supply temporarily fails, planting has to stop causing the overall rate of forest expansion to slow down. Compost is another main requirement. Ideally, the forest would have its own compost facility and accept green and bio-waste by the truckload. This ideal is not achievable at present and supplies of raw compost materials are variable, both in quantity and quality.
Funding for the Millennium Forest has been from three main sources. First, the UK government’s Overseas Territories Environmental Programme, which paid for a series of tasks to be completed by March 2009, and also St Helena’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Dept. and from people who pay for a tree to be planted or simply make a donation. It is now funded by donations from the public, and the sale of trees for planting.