Trustee Philip Geddes reports of the first half of our UK Antarctic Heritage Trust sponsored talks…
‘Spuds, sledges and sovereignty’ Sophie Rowe, Conservator Scott Polar Research Institute 24 January 2019
The ultimate manshed…….in the deep south
If you were going on a long trip for several years to the remote Antarctic Peninsular, you probably wouldn’t solve your accommodation needs by looking in Boulton & Paul’s catalogue of self-build cricket pavilions. But that’s where the hut at Base Y on Horseshoe Island on the Antarctica Peninsular came from. In the first Oates Antarctic Lecture of 2019 Sophie Rowe, a Conservator with Scott Polar Research Institute, told us the engrossing story of Operation Tabarin and Britain’s Antarctic heritage of huts and other buildings.
Few people realise that virtually all the exploration of Antarctica in the heroic age of Scott and Shackleton was privately funded. Governments – which now provide most funding – were not interested till the Second World War. Wartime Britain was concerned that enemies might seize the Falklands or make use of Antarctica as a place to conceal military operations. This was not unreasonable, given that the German surface raider Pinguin had captured over 20,000 tonnes of valuable whale oil from Norwegian whalers operating in the Southern Ocean in January 1941. In 1943 Operation Tabarin was launched ostensibly to collect weather and other data, and watch for Axis military operations in the Antarctic Peninsular. Even that enthusiastic supporter of eccentric military operations, Winston Churchill, had his doubts, wondering why we were “sending an expedition of fighting men to the South Pole”. There was another hidden motive too – in a belief that possession was nine tenths of the law, Operation Tabarin established a network of bases to “fly the flag” and promote British sovereignty.
Base Y was built after the war in 1955 and occupied for five years. In 2017 Sophie led a conservation team down to Horseshoe Island to see how the hut was faring in the hostile environment of Antarctica. The team who built the hut in the first place had been chosen for their expeditionary or scientific skills rather than their DIY skills – some windows were put in upside down, and the hut was not built according to the plans. But in the traditional Antarctic way, the small team at the hut managed to create comfortable and effective living and working quarters by a lot of extemporising and ingenuity.
Sophie’s conservation team was delivered there by HMS Protector (the Navy’s Antarctic guard ship) and managed to land four and a half tonnes of supplies and building materials at Base Y by sheer physical humping with a human chain made up of the ship’s crew and Royal Marines. Sophie showed a photograph of exactly the same happening in 1955. In a few weeks the conservation team managed to do essential repairs, produce a condition report on the building and identify, photograph and log 7,750 objects found in the hut – from signed photos of The Queen and Prince Philip, to bits of left over radio kit and a kitchen stocked with well known brands, many of them still sold today.
In her excellently illustrated presentation Sophie gave the audience a real feeling of what life in Antarctica in 1955 was like. “Like stepping into your grandparents’ house” was the comment of one of the audience. And Sophie’s team managed to continue a long held British Antarctic tradition – when visited by cruise ships during their stay, with several hundred visitors ashore at a time, the team “opened” Base Y’s Post Office and franked letters on behalf of delighted visitors.
Opening a Post Office is, of course, one of the simplest and most visible ways of demonstrating sovereignty. Like much in Antarctica, some things never change.
‘The Ratman of South Georgia’ Dickie Hall, South Georgia Habitat Restoration Projects 28 February 2019
“Rat killing…..big time”
In terms of size, South Georgia is one of Britain’s largest overseas possessions (roughly 100 miles long and 20 miles wide) but one of its least populated – 35 residents in summer dropping to around 20 in winter. It is home to very large numbers of birds which come there to breed, feeding of the plentiful food in the waters round the islands – including albatross, petrels, prions, shags, skuas, gulls and terns and unique species such as the South Georgia shag, South Georgia pipit, and the South Georgia pintail.
But another population has also flourished until recently – rats. Travelling with the sealers who used the island as a base of operations for almost 200 years, rats (rattus norvegicus) quickly established themselves and grew fat on the easy pickings. The island’s polar climate means there is a complete lack of vegetation – or as Captain Cook (who claimed South Georgia for Britain in 1775) put it “there’s not a shrub big enough to make a toothpick with”. This in turn meant that birds had no refuge from predators.
Dickie Hall and his team changed all that. The idea of eliminating rats had been around for some years, but had been rejected on grounds of cost. South Georgia and its islands were eight times bigger than any area treated so far. A small UK charity – the South Georgia Heritage Trust, with no experience of habitat restoration, decided to take on the project, despite not having all the funds needed before starting. Three phases (2011/12, 2013/14 and 2015/18) were planned with time for evaluation between each phase.
A team was created and supplied with three elderly helicopters (one of them originally owned by Jackie Onassis) to distribute 300 tonnes of poison bait across all parts of the islands where rats lived. Fortunately the structure and climate of South Georgia (with the spine of the island covered all year round with ice and snow) meant that groups of rats could be targeted as they lived in specific limited areas and did not move round the island.
The work was very demanding for both pilots and ground crew. The pilots had to fly in very unpredictable weather and use precision flying skills – the doors of the helicopters were taken off to ensure that pilots could see that the bait was dropped in the right places – while bait crews (among whom in the early days was Dickie Hall) filled the containers carried by the helicopters while they were hovering over stocks of bait. The ground crews had to live in tents during the operations which took place in summer months. By the time of the last phase of the project, Dickie Hall was in charge of the operation.
In 2018 it was time to review the project and see if it had worked. By then helicopters had flown for 1100 hours over very difficult terrain in all sorts of weather, and bait had been laid everywhere that rats could live, at a cost of £7.5m. Dickie’s teams installed 4686 passive detector devices all over the island and brought in specially trained rodent detection dogs from New Zealand. By May 2018 no rodents had been found and the operation was declared a success by SGHT. Bird numbers are now recovering rapidly.
The next challenge will be to ensure that the island remains free of rats. A strict regime of biosecurity has been imposed on all vessels visiting South Georgia to ensure that the island remains free of rats.
You would have thought anyone finishing a job as challenging as this might put their feet up for a while, but you’d be wrong. Dickie’s next target (with support this time from RSPB) is the mice of Gough Island, a tiny treeless uninhabited volcanic island – 16,000 acres in all – in the middle of the South Atlantic, about as remote as you can get. One of the challenges is that it is 1550 miles from South Africa, the base for the operation. Gough Island is home to more than eight million birds from at least 24 different species, including some of the most threatened in the world.
Watch out Gough mice..,..he’s coming for you !