Restoration of Motley Island: engaging the local community to restore native peatland habitats

Habitat loss and soil erosion are of major conservation concern in the Falkland Islands. Originally caused by deliberate burning by early sealers and subsequently by stock over-grazing in an environment without native land mammals. Climate change now drives the drying of the peatland soils across the island group and exacerbates the problem. Located in the South-West Atlantic, in the latitudes once referred to by sailors as the “Furious Fifties” for the incessant winds, any exposed soils will be removed by wind erosion and lost. Ground vegetation must be maintained to bind and protect soils.

In 2020, through a grant to Falklands Conservation to address coastal peatland erosion on Motley Island, BEST 2.0+ recognised the need to reverse this habitat, biodiversity and peatland carbon loss and to build community capacity for habitat restoration activities.

Why Motley Island?

Motley Island, located on the eastern seaboard of the archipelago, is internationally recognised as a Key Biodiversity Area (KBA). The island supports good numbers of all three Falkland Island endemic bird species, including Cobb’s Wren and Tussacbird, which are now restricted to only rat-free offshore islands. The inland heath areas hold the largest known plant populations of the endemic and globally Endangered Hairy Daisy.

Whilst now a private protected area and ungrazed, the island has not escaped past impacts. Like much of the Falklands, where tussac grass habitat has been severely depleted, much of the coastal fringe was degraded and actively eroding. This removes the tussac habitat critical for endemic birds and a range of other wildlife and threatens to destabilise the inland habitats. Maintaining a healthy tussac habitat as an important carbon sink is vital, and its loss would be irreversible, releasing thousands of years of stored carbon.

Due to its relative remoteness, Motley Island has been difficult to reach to undertake tussac planting and restoration initiatives. The EU BEST financial support gave the logistical capacity to visit the island.

Community engagement

The project was highly focused on community engagement and capacity building. In total, 87 separate volunteers were involved in the work representing 2.5% of the Falklands population (in relative terms, this would be equivalent to 11 million EU citizens volunteering for a similar European project). This represents a fantastic volunteering uptake, with each volunteer provided with background information and complete training in restoration and planting techniques. This provision expands the number of people able to assist with planting in the future, providing a valuable personnel asset in a territory where human resources are always limited. This exposure has encouraged some to consider restoration a potential employment opportunity.

As one of the volunteers, Emmaleigh Middelton, described, “As a first-time tussac planter, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be much more enjoyable than I thought it would be. Former project lead, Katherine Ross, gave us a rundown of the plan and a quick demonstration, and we set to work. With 12 people working hard, the bare area quickly transformed and became full of small tussac plants. It is a gratifying moment when you turn around and look back at all the tussac planted on what was bare ground when you arrived. My experience with the team on Motley Island was fantastic, and I felt more connected to the environment in the process.”

What has been the direct impact?

The supported project focussed on replanting new tussac grass tillers across Motley’s actively eroding coastal edges to prevent future expansion of these areas. These unique plants will reduce soil surface wind speed and start to bind the soil again. With time, the bogs will expand, set seed, and actively fix carbon.

Over the 11 days of planting, 5.7 ha of bare ground was planted with new tussac tillers. Tiller transplants were first pulled from remnant tussac bogs, bagged and then carried to the planting site. All priority sites were planted. Future work will focus on replacing plant mortality and widening the planting belts. Now that the windward edges have stabilised, the project has given us time to do this.

Looking forward

Travel around the islands can be restrictive, and many volunteers had the opportunity to see an offshore tussac island and a problem they may have been unaware of for the first time. They also directly experienced the effort and investment to go into such restoration. This can translate to a better appreciation and community support for restoration initiatives that can be conveyed to policymakers. Suppose restoration is to be expanded to a scale significant enough to tackle the 5,000 hectares of bare tussac ground already estimated to exist in the Falklands. In that case, substantial public resources will likely be required to incentivise restoration through set-aside or offsetting needed. This must compete with other public financing and thus must have support from the community. Trips such as these, supported by the EU BEST 2.0+, bring many members of the local community face-to-face with the problem so that it is no longer just an abstract concept but a real issue with significance to all of us.

This article has been written by Grant Munro, Project lead of project: Restoration of Motley Island’s native peatland habitats.

All photos are credited as “Falkland’s Conservation”