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Saturday, 01 July 2017

Tidings of Tussac Grass: Falkland Islands

Written by Matthew Hay
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I couldn’t place the sound. It wasn’t one I had heard before. It was like the muffled hybrid of a bear’s growl and a dog’s bark; guttural, harsh and unsettling. I stopped dead, my heart pounding. I couldn’t see more than a meter in any direction, surrounded as I was by the 10-foot high tussac grass that covered this landscape, but all around me was movement and commotion. I hadn’t expected to find them here. Not yet. It was too soon.

Hoping not to startle my quarry any further I hopped up onto the stool of the nearest tussac stand, giving myself both visibility and vision. All around me southern sea lions bounded with surprising speed through the grass, spooked by the shouts of their fellows and eager to evade whatever threat might be lurking. When they were twenty meters away they congregated and turned to look at me, craning their necks above the foliage to peer inquisitively in my direction.

It was a surreal sight, gazing down at the many whiskered faces below me, their fur a mixture of browns, blacks, creams and beige. In amongst the group were some huge bulls, but there were also light-colored pups and all sizes in between. I noticed that one youngster had even climbed onto the back of a nearby adult to try and get a better glimpse of the human who had disturbed his rest. He seemed more excited than perturbed by the intrusion.


A Southern Sea Lion staring me down

This colony of sea lions was just one of many that inhabit the Falkland Islands, an archipelago in the South Atlantic some 300 miles east of Argentina. They spent their days at sea, fishing in the rich, cold waters before hauling out to sleep on land. Their preferred habitat was the jungle I had been wading through – mature stands of tussac grass, the staple of the Falklands’ terrestrial ecology.

No trees grow on these sub-Antarctic islands; cool summers and relentless wind preclude their establishment. Grass has evolved to fill the niche. Left undisturbed, the grass can grow to three meters tall and live for over 200 years. It sequesters as much carbon as many high-latitude trees, locking the greenhouse gas away as peat, which forms at its base as the lowest layers and oldest leaves of the plant slowly die and decompose beneath it.

Like the mighty oak of Europe’s forests, or the corals of tropical reefs, this keystone species also shoulders a disproportionate ecological burden, housing 46 of the Falklands’ 62 breeding birds and providing an essential habitat for the archipelago’s most charismatic wildlife; elephant seals, penguins and sea lions. Such an environmental asset was never going to be preserved by man.

Since humans arrived in the Falklands they have exploited tussac, over-grazing it to support unsustainable herds of sheep and cattle or else burning it to flush out the sea lions and penguins that yielded them oil. Originally, 22,000 hectares of this plant fringed the entire coastline of the archipelago. Now the two largest islands retain just 65 hectares in small, isolated clumps.

The irony is that our exploitation of tussac grass has hurt economic interests as much as ecological ones. In 1842, it was estimated that 30,000 long-horned cattle and 3,000 horses roamed East Falkland alone, grazing on the “extensive plains of fine grassland”, which early visitors noted reached to the very tops of the mountains. These large herbivores rapidly degraded the islands’ pastures until only the hardy sheep could eke out a living on most of the land. Cattle now number just 5,000 and likewise the size of sheep herds has dropped substantially since their heyday in the late-19th century, when over 800,000 called the Falklands home.

It is hard not to see the ecological plundering of the Falklands in the context of current global environmental concerns. Short-term economic interests and a desire for profit above all else led to callous mismanagement of the country’s natural assets. This is a pattern we see again and again, in the palm oil plantations of Indonesia, in the cattle ranches of Brazil, in the fisheries of northern Europe. The correlation between healthy ecology and strong long-term economy is determinedly ignored, blurred into obscurity by the blinding glare of immediate financial gain.


A post-tussac landscape on Pebble Island, eroded and bare

But if the Falklands are a microcosm for man’s relationship with the natural world, there are at least some tentative signs of hope; some forward-thinking local farmers are finally implementing a longer-term agricultural vision and a regenerative economic strategy.

Working with conservation organizations, they are attempting to replant and restore the tussac groves that once covered their estates. It is not a simple process, as much of the islands’ topsoil has been eroded by the Falklands’ fierce winds since the original grasses were destroyed. However, with sufficient labor and care the plants do seem able to take root in some places once again.

Once this grass reaches maturity, its native hardiness allows it to grow right through the winter and, if managed sustainably, this can be an excellent source of fodder for grazing livestock, enabling even cattle to thrive during the Falklands’ colder months.

Such farming may not generate an enormous profit, but it secures its future existence as well as enhancing the land it relies on. The restored grass supports cows, sequesters carbon, generates soil and houses wildlife. It complements 21st century values and empowers landowners with responsibility and stewardship for the timeless assets in their possession.

Cape Dolphin farm, situated on the northern tip of East Falkland, is an example of this new, regenerative agriculture. Its man-made tussac plantations complement the fragments of existing grass to help support one of the islands’ few herds of cattle.

The plantations also shelter several colonies of southern sea lions, which travel surprisingly far from the coast to shelter from the elements among the dense stands. It was at one of these colonies that I was currently gazing, bewitched and delighted by one of the most memorable wildlife encounters of my life.

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In amongst the tussac on Cape Dolphin

©Matthew Hay

Last modified on Friday, 30 June 2017