Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Rare woodlouse at risk from St Helena's quest to give us enough rope

Demand for flax from ropemakers threatens scarce tree and woodlouse on South Atlantic island – but help is at hand

On the flank of High Peak, one of the highest hills on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic, there is a tiny scrap of land known as the Dell. The size of a tennis court, it is the island's most important terrestrial habitat and one of the world's most precious ecological niches.

The Dell is the last fragment of black cabbage tree woodland that once covered the island's peaks. With its flat crowns of leathery leaves that form a dense, dark protective canopy, the black cabbage tree provides a warm, moist home for several local creatures, including the spiky yellow woodlouse, which is found nowhere else on the planet.

However, St Helena's rugged slopes were largely stripped of black cabbage trees, which were chopped down to make way for the large-scale planting of flax, a plant that has sustained the island's rope manufacturing companies, an industry that in turn reflects St Helena's importance as a key stop-over for ships sailing to and from the far east via Cape Town.

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