Banner image (clockwise from top left): Copyright Dr Mike Pienkowski unless stated: Green turtle at nest on Ascension Island; Colliers Reserve, part of protected habitat for Cayman blue iguana (Copyright: Ann Stafford); Part of the Turks and Caicos wetland complex on North and Middle Caicos, a Ramsar Site; Sooty terns on Ascension Island; Montserrat's Centre Hills Forest Reserve; Cayman blue iguana (Copyright: Blue Iguana Recovery Programme)

What makes us unique?

We are the only organisation whose sole focus is nature and heritage conservation, environmental education and sustainable use across all UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) and Crown Dependencies (CDs). Whether or not we have current projects in a particular territory, we maintain the linkage with and across all territories, our member and associate organisations there, territory governments, and others in UK or elsewhere with involvement in the territories. This gives us unrivalled continuity of contacts, information resources, and corporate memory, reflected in our website-database, regional working groups, conferences for working conservationists and decision-makers, and links with Parliament. Our huge voluntary network but small core team gives us the ability to move quickly to address problems.

Bringing together partners 

We have long recognised that too much help at any one time could overwhelm small local organisations in a territory but that, if initiatives are to persist long-term, those local organisations must be fully involved in the planning and implementation of projects.

We have encourage other conservation bodies, whether members or not, to undertake and, where appropriate, resource conservation actions desired by local partners. We aim to coordinate these efforts where possible. Some examples of this, from the 1990s, are our efforts, over several years, to secure funding for the Ascension Island seabird restoration programme. As a result, this was eventually resourced initially by FCO, with the implementation led by RSPB. Similarly, we coordinated emergency discussions after the volcano in Montserrat moved into its seriously damaging phase. This resulted in work by Durrell, RSPB, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Montana State University and others, to try to save the mountain chicken frog, the Montserrat oriole and other threatened species. Moving into the present century, and what developed into a Tristan da Cunha’s major programme of study and conservation, especially of birds: its initiation was planned jointly by RSPB’s then UKOT lead officer and us. The successful joint work by RBG Kew and local partners on the saving of the Turks and Caicos pine, devastated by an introduced parasite, was triggered by the discovery of the problem by UKOTCF's fieldwork programme in 2005, involving some of these partners.

Caicos Pine nursery at Government Farm on Middle Caicos; Copyright: visittci.com

There are many other examples.

Usually, these include also UKOT government partners and, in some of the best examples, UK government bodies. An enthusiastic official in FCO, alert to opportunities, was responsible for an effective doubling of FCO’s spend on conservation in the UKOTs one year. This was done by securing money, which suddenly became available (for no particular purpose following a delay in what it had been supposed to support) to initiate the Ascension Island seabird restoration project – one of the major and successful conservation projects in recent decades.

Sign to inform public about planned trapping of feral cats on Ascension; Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Collaboration between us, the UK Government officials, RSPB and other NGOs was instrumental in preventing the novel, and potentially destructive, proposal to turn the entire island of Sombrero [recently designated as Anguilla’s first Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention] into one of the world’s major rocket launching bases. It was proposed by a commercial firm with no previous experience of that activity. This may be the only case so far where UK’s Outer Space Act has been deployed for conservation purposes.

We encourage partner organisations and others to fill needs beyond our own resources. We tend both to trial new approaches and to fill gaps or undertake work to link work by others to make information and experience available for conservationists in territory, to apply to their conservation needs. We have identified these needs, and initiated and advised on some of the major recent and current projects, for example on dealing with invasive species and on establishing marine protected areas and related conservation measures. In a specific example in 2014, we facilitated the US Waitt Initiative to partner with the Government of Montserrat, following a request from Montserrat Government to find help in this area.

The flamingo tongue is a small marine snail that lives on Montserrat's coral reefs; Copyright: Emanuel Goncalves

 

Capacity Development in the Territories

Helping local people to establish a local conservation body

Conservation measures, effective in the long-term, are impossible in inhabited territories without local “ownership”. A key to this is a local civil society conservation body, and helping the establishment of these was one of our main targets. This has been achieved, in that only two inhabited UKOTs lack a conservation NGO, and these are the two territories where the human population is so small that the entire community effectively acts as the NGO. In small communities, as is the case in most UKOTs, one or a very small number of people tend to have key roles. The loss or diversion of effort in such individuals has occasionally set back conservation work. A few such occasions led to us being asked – and responding – to requests for further work on capacity development.

Facilitating local bodies to raise their capacity

We have helped local bodies to run themselves, by giving advice and by visiting them to help build capacity and develop other collaborations. Often, this has been extended to helping the local governmental conservation bodies also as, in many cases, they were formerly – and some still are – quite small in capacity. For several territories, our advice has been sought and given. This applies also in what is probably the most developed and independent UKOT, Bermuda. Conservation departments within the government were reorganised in the early 2000s, following the structure guided by one of our publications a few years earlier. On a wider scale, our equivalent bodies in both France and Netherlands (both, at the time, the national IUCN committees) were less developed around the turn of the millennium. They sought advice, which was given, by inviting them to our conferences, through visits to them, and through many emails and phone calls. Both live in rather more supportive official funding environments than exist in Britain, and their current funding reflects this.

One example of the impact of this wider support is the support received by the Netherlands body, the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance (DCNA). This receives support from the Dutch equivalent of the National Lottery, whereas the in the UK, UKOT conservation is not supported. The irony is great, in that one of the arguments that DCNA used to secure this major support was, mistakenly, that UKOTs already received Lottery support from Britain.

Identifying conservation needs, develop strategies and projects

In terms of strategic planning, in the early 2000s, with UK Government support, we facilitated government departments, NGOs, local businesses and other stakeholders in the Turks and Caicos Islands (as the pilot territory) in developing a strategy for action to implement their Environment Charter, as required by that agreement. Following the pilot, St Helena commissioned similar assistance, which we provided (again with UK Government support). We were also able also to give also some advice to Ascension Island while en route.

Black Browed Albatross colony on Falkland Islands; Copyright: Tim Earl

Later experience of this approach was passed on to the Falkland Islands to benefit the Falklands who were using an alternative form of strategy development. More widely, we have given advice, mainly by remote means, to several other territories on strategic planning, both in the context of the Environment Charters and other frameworks.

To address the strategies, we worked at various times with many territories on project design, the seeking of resources and project management. Some of our project work can be seen under What we do.

We have also, throughout much of our existence, organised volunteer support to help train and build the capacity of local partners, or provide skills, which they need only infrequently, so that it would be inefficient to train local personnel. Rather than volume volunteering, which several other organisations have made a success, we have focused on tailoring volunteer resources to the particular needs identified in territory. Accordingly, our volunteers have tended to be trained or experienced specialists, although this could be in other supporting needs (in one case building renovation) and not necessarily in ecology or conservation. Our volunteers have been of all ages, but probably peaking in two categories: graduates of first or higher degrees, who want a short career break and/or additional experience; and persons much later in their career or retired, wishing to take a break and make good use of their experience and expertise at that stage. One highlight has been Felix Driver, who spent most of 2015 on St Helena working for the St Helena National Trust to the restore the forests.

Felix takes a moment to admire view at Horsecliff on St Helena between survey work with the St Helena National Trust

Another has been Duncan, Sally and Fraser Hutt, who have worked on several projects. Duncan is the Head of Land Management at the Northumberland Wildlife Trust. Recently, he has been using his skills in remote sensing and GIS to work with the Montserrat National Trust on some habitat mapping work.

 It is important too not to forget local volunteers and community action. One example is the involvement of school students in Grand Turk (TCI), in combination with the efforts of local conservationists in achieving the first protected areas in parts of the internationally important salt-pans. Other examples are several cases of stopping or diverting proposed roads, which would have damaged rare and sensitive ecosystems in Grand Cayman, and the local resistance to damaging built development in BVI, which local people consider led to a change of government at a general election.

Aiding cross-territory co-operation

Several projects indicate the importance of cross-territory co-operation. This is important as it allows territories to benefit from the experience of others and identify common issues to address more cost-effectively, for example so that these may be addressed to UK Government. At the first conference for working conservationists and decision-makers in the UKOTs and CDs, the most senior conservation official said that never before had she been encouraged to speak with her opposite numbers from even the adjacent territory, and found the exercise immensely valuable. This has been echoed over the years by colleagues at all levels. We assisted FCO in organising a conference in London in 1999, and we were already by that time organising the first of our own major conservation conferences, which was held in Gibraltar in 2000, followed by Bermuda in 2003, Jersey in 2006, Grand Cayman 2009 and Gibraltar again in 2015. These conferences are highly valued by workers in the territories, who have pointed out, in published feedback, that not only do they make conservation work more practicable and more cost-effective, but that some activities depending on collaboration would simply not happen without them. 

An innovation at the 2015 Gibraltar conference was the first meeting of environmental ministers or equivalents of UKOT and CD governments. It was encouraging to see the ministers “taking ownership” of these environmental issues. At the end of 2015, the Joint Ministerial Council Communiqué, the statement coming out of the joint meetings between UK Government and Chief Ministers/Premiers of UKOTs Governments following their annual meeting in London, welcomed the establishment of the meetings and a second meeting took place in Alderney in April 2017.

Second meeting of Environment Ministers held on Alderney, April 2017; Copyright: UKOTCF

In addition to responding to frequent individual queries and requests for advice from the territories, we organise regional working groups. These now cover all UKOTs and CDs, in the working groups for the Wider Caribbean, the Southern Oceans, and Europe Territories. These evolved from working groups addressing single or a few territories, as the benefits of interaction became apparent. The availability of free or cheap communications, first by email and then also by facilities such as Skype, greatly improved the efficiency of these, and has allowed real-time participation for both UK and the territories. Each of the working groups now produces also a bulletin or newsletter. These add to the very long established Forum News, which has a much wider circulation, and is also freely available.

Raising awareness in the public and decision-makers

One aspect of this flows out of the wider use of our website. This aspect has been enhanced by the inclusion of “virtual tours”, whose development is in progress. These are effectively slide-shows about each of the territories, with links to videos and other material as well as to other sites. They were initially designed at the request of the territories so that they could get to know each other better.

The raising of public awareness generally is a huge task, especially for an organisation with very limited resources. As well as providing articles, presentations and lectures in a range of places (e.g. universities, British Bird Fair, county wildlife groups, national societies), We have, over many years, tried to interest television and radio networks in programmes about the fascinating and uniquely important wildlife of UK’s Overseas Territories. Although it captured the interest of, for example, senior BBC producers, such people were never able to convince their organisations to embark on such programmes. A young independent producer, Stewart McPherson, aimed to overcome this by self-funding a project, later recovering costs by sale to TV networks across the world. So, when he approached us for help in a self-funded series of films about the wildlife of the UKOTs, we were pleased to help. This was despite it involving the provision of an enormous amount of unpaid time, as well as giving free access to many photographs, videos and information. Stewart’s series, Britain’s Treasure Islands, has now been shown to very large audiences twice on BBC4 in 2016-17 (the first time breaking a record for BBC4 of 700,000 viewers) and repeated in later years, as well as other networks around the world. We helped Stewart also to secure resources to edit video not used in the main series into short documentaries freely accessible by anyone.

Stewart McPherson gives a lecture at the Royal Geographical Society on his journey to all of the British Overseas Territories, organised with UKOTCF; Copyright: UKOTCF

These, together with other videos by our own Ann Pienkowski are found on our media page. We helped by editing not just scripts of videos, but also text and pictures of Stewart’s book, providing also a great deal of additional material.

Some examples of articles can be found here.

As we have done for many years, we continue to put great effort into raising awareness of issues with UK decision- makers.

In Parliament, we have long tried to brief MPs and peers of any party taking any interest in UKOTs and CDs, and this seems to have raised awareness. For example, only a few years ago, mentioning UK Overseas Territories to a UK Government minister – even, at times, those with responsibilities for these – would often result in a blank look. Nowadays, many ministers have awareness of the territories, even if there is still some way to go in securing their enthusiastic support for the environment, despite this being a hugely important international responsibility of the UK. The relationship with select committees has been very productive, and we have enjoyed the cross-party cooperative and positive approach that many of these have adopted in recent years in examining the accountability of UK Government. We have frequently given evidence to several, including to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FCO). (Despite its name, FCO, which FAC monitors, has the policy lead in respect of UK Overseas Territories). We have given evidence particularly to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC). In 2009, we facilitated the involvement of the FAC at the Cayman Conference to provide a critical view of how Select Committees can influence policy. In 2015, we hosted an event at Gibraltar House to launch the EAC’s second report on Sustainability in the UKOTs. While we aim to submit responses to inquiries which impact on the UKOTs, we also encourage members and associate organisations to do so, so that a direct voice is heard. In 2017, we supplied written and oral evidence to several Committees to ensure that UKOT matters are not overlooked, especially in view of the results of the EU referendum in 2016, which will have an impact on UKOTs funding. See more in our Raising Awareness section.

What difference has been made?

A clear case is the increased capacity of most of the territory civil society conservation bodies – and in many cases that of the territory government’s conservation body also.

A second area of progress is the further raising of the capacities and overall cost-effectiveness of these bodies, by facilitating a much greater degree of cooperation and collaboration than occurred previously. As noted by a senior UKOT official, before the our activity, its working groups and conferences, there had been very little encouragement and assistance to communicate even with nearby UKOTs, in official or NGO capacities, on conservation work. Now, joint projects and exchange of expertise and experience are common.

There is also a much greater understanding of the benefits of international conservation conventions, which we often explained. Accordingly, there was a much increased signup to UK’s ratifications of such treaties, as well as designations, such as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention and, since 2012, the Convention on Biological Diversity (Isle of Man, South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, and Falklands Islands).

In Great Britain and Northern Ireland (and, to some extent, elsewhere), we have greatly increased the number of conservation bodies that were contributing funds or other resources to conservation issues in the territories. This has been done via bodies joining us or partnering in some other way to benefit from its input, or via seeking advice or contacts from us.

The number of territory organisations that have joined as members has increased greatly. With the agreement of all, including the GB and NI-based bodies, the territory bodies now take a greater lead in advising on our priorities-see Members and Associate organisations.

As a consequence of this increased pool of resources (including major contributions from governments – see below), many more conservation projects have taken place on the ground, some of these very large. With the 30 years of active involvement over which we can assess, several stand out as notable (and we apologise for not listing all examples):

  • the recoveries from very low levels (and taking decades of resources) of the Bermuda petrel, the Grand Cayman blue iguana, and Ascension’s seabirds, the improving status already becoming apparent of the native wildlife of South Georgia; as well as the apparent stabilisation of numbers of the Montserrat oriole and the St Helena wirebird;
St Helena plover or wirebird; Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski
  • the establishment of major marine nature reserves at the Isle of Man, Ascension, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Pitcairn Islands, Tristan da Cunha, St Helena and potentially others (the procedures adopted at some of these have provided lessons to use in the future);
  • designation of four World Heritage Sites in the UKOTs, and of an increasing number of Wetlands of International) Importance under the Ramsar Convention, many following the UKOTCF’s review of actual and potential such sites;
  • the restoration of ecosystems by projects including: the Millennium Gumwood Forest of St Helena; a number of the smaller islands of the Falklands;
  • the restoration of Akrotiri Marshes, Cyprus Sovereign Base Areas.

Flamingoes at Akrotiri salt marsh- a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance; Copyright: Felix Driver

There has been, in several territories, an increased awareness of the global importance of the wildlife (which may be seen as everyday to a local inhabitant of the special places in which they live). This is beginning to lead to community support for policies and conservation actions on the ground. These are things long established in UK and the rest of Europe, but are less traditional in many UKOTs. Some of our recent activities and projects have been directed towards developing this sense of “ownership” of, and shared responsibility for, the natural environment. The latter underpins both the quality of life and, in many cases, present and future ecosystem services and economic development. However, because this is not yet well established, resourcing this work has proven rather difficult.

In many cases also, the governments of UKOTs/CDs are becoming more sensitised to the need to look after the natural environment in the long-term, for the benefit of their territories and their local economies. We aim to facilitate this further, having long provided information and advice when requested on areas of common interest. We ontinue to submit responses to consultations, both in territory and in the UK, to ensure voices are heard and considered.

Raising public awareness, in Britain of the global importance of wildlife in the UKOTs, their status as sovereign British territory with British citizens, and Britain’s shared responsibility, is a very long job. With limited resources, the need will continue for a long time. However, we have seen considerable progress through our efforts, including via our website and publications, and by our contributions with others, such as the recent Britain’s Treasure Islands BBC package and continuing interest from BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth programme. 

Progress has been made in raising awareness in Parliament and Government over the years – which is not to say more does not need to be done. MPs and peers, including government ministers, are now more likely to recognise the term “overseas territories” and have at least some idea about them. Some now have very considerable interest and knowledge. Parliament is taking an increasing interest in the territories. For example, the number of select committee inquiries addressing UKOTs, at least in part, has been much higher over the past decade or so than earlier. We have helped government officials in briefing colleagues on many occasions, to try to offset the problem of rapid turnover of personnel. We also routinely brief UKOT governors-designate before they take up post.

There is a more up-and-down situation in some aspects.

Funding Challenges

Dedicated funding to UKOTs (but not CDs) has increased overall, tending to occasional steps with long plateaus, and occasional dips as well as welcome peaks – although we would like the latter maintained over time. It is widely accepted (including by the government’s statutory adviser), and voiced by Parliamentary select committees, that the UK Government funding to conservation in the territories remains grossly inadequate. In trying to make the most of the limited funding, we (and UKOTs) have identified problems in the distancing of decision-making from reviewed needs. As part of this, we have had to waste effort by periodically having to spend time arguing against absent-minded cuts, all just to regain the previous level of support. We are well aware of the problems here lie not with the dedicated Government officials dealing with territories, but more distantly in the governmental system, rather remote from knowledge of the actual situation.

Working with its equivalent umbrella bodies in France and the Netherlands in the Bioverseas grouping. We have raised awareness of the territories in European Union institutions. Our Bioverseas grouping worked also for many years to secure European Union funding for overseas territories. With the UK’s anticipated departure from the EU, UKOT eligibility for this source will be lost – and we do not yet know whether or how UK Government will fill this gap.

During the first 20 years of this review period, there was generally an increasing and striking tendency to cooperative working between the our network and UK Government officials. This was so much so that, on several occasions, colleagues in other sectoral areas wondered how they could copy this approach. In much of the recent decade, however, there has been drifting apart, certainly not our wish or of our partners. This has been despite the clear interest and commitment of many of the UK governmental officials with whom we have worked. The overall reasons seem difficult to pin down. However, in retrospect, we can see some likely ones. The FCO’s discontinuing of its environmental personnel in the middle of the first decade of this millennium undoubtedly had a major effect, as FCO has the policy lead for UKOTs. Matters were exacerbated by: the fact that it was several years before FCO’s preference that DEFRA take-over the environmental aspects relating to UKOTs actually occurred (and then only partly); the lack of equivalent transfer in resourcing; and the gap in corporate memory. Some unfortunate decisions by DEFRA’s agency also exacerbated the situation. The transfer of DFID’s Overseas Territories Department far out of London, did not help, leading to a total staff turnover and reduction in liaison. A loss of interest by DFID in the environment also followed. Perhaps overall, the most surprising feature was a reduction in routine communications between UK governmental officials and the NGOs. This was particularly surprising at a time of increasing demands but reducing resources. In such a situation, one would normally look to spreading the load, and sharing the problems. Actually, the reverse route was taken, perhaps because the problems were so heavy that no one had the time to think more strategically. Nevertheless, we continue to liaise with the remaining contacts, and continue to try to build on these relationships.

It would be remiss to omit one particular example of increased cooperation and success, followed by a decline. This concerns environmental education and awareness. In this area, with our territory partners we have had several very successful projects in the territories, with UK Government financial support. However, in 2010, information and environmental education work in the UKOTs got swept up in a ban on outside contracts (apparently intended mainly against excessive use of information technology and public relations outside contracts). Thereby, the environmental education and awareness projects, which had been so successful in the past, were no longer eligible for grant-funding from UK Government. This is also despite the Commitments to environmental education in the Environment Charters and the need to report these under the Convention of Biological Diversity, and of the wish by the UKOTs for more of this work. In spite of many requests in the intervening period, it seems that the original reasoning has been lost, and no reversal has been achieved. .

It is particularly pleasing to note that in 2017, in Round 6 of the Darwin Plus, this ban has been lifted. It is difficult to know if our efforts over 7 years, including the conclusions and recommendations of the Gibraltar conference in 2015 were the catalyst for this change as it has never been clarified; however, it seems likely. 

We outline some of the impacts of our work in the UK here.