Over the last 250 years, human activities have had a profound impact on the flora and fauna of South Georgia. Sealing began in the late 1700’s and expeditions often lived ashore for months at a time. So brutally efficient was their operation, by the early 1800’s the seal populations were depleted beyond economic viability and the sealers departed. Next came the whaling industry. Between 1904 and the 1960’s tens of thousands of whales were killed, with over 1,000 people employed on the island to process the catch. The seasonal movement of visiting people and vessels, and the importing of supplies and equipment, led to numerous invasive species including rats, mice, reindeer and a wide variety of plants being either accidentally or deliberately introduced.
Left unchecked, these invasive species could have had a devastating and irreparable effect on the South Georgia ecosystem. Invasive rodents consumed the eggs and young of native bird species decimating populations and in some cases completely excluding them. Reindeer trampled and grazed the fragile sub-Antarctic vegetation and the burrows of seabirds below collapsed. Non-native plants competed with slow growing native species changing the character and functioning of vegetation communities.
Over the last 10 years, South Georgia has played host to some of the largest habitat restoration projects undertaken anywhere on earth. The Government of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands and the Norwegian Nature Inspectorate completed a reindeer eradication programme that used a combination of herding and ground shooting to remove almost 7,000 reindeer from the island. In 2018 South Georgia was declared rodent free after the South Georgia Heritage Trust undertook a programme to eradicate rats and mice, using aerial distribution of bait from helicopters. The benefits of these habitat restoration projects are now being reaped and native bird and plant populations are thriving as never before. With the removal of grazing pressure from reindeer, many of the non-native plants thrived and are now the subject of an on-going weed management plan which aims to reduce 33 of the 47 non-native plants to zero population density by 2020.
40p Tussock grass – A staple of the terrestrial ecosystem, tussock grass provides nesting space for birds and habitat for numerous invertebrates. Although it is a tenacious species, grazing and antler rubbing saw many tussock bogs reduced to mossy stumps. Little by little, tussock and its many companion species are now reclaiming the coastal landscape of South Georgia.
55p South Georgia pipit – Endemic to the island, the South Georgia pipit is the only song-bird species in the Antarctic. In the presence of rodents the pipit was restricted to offshore islands and slivers of vegetation on the harsh south coast. Since the rodent eradication the pipit has made a remarkable recovery and now its cheerful song can be heard throughout the territory.
70p Greater burnet – A member of the rose family, with a prickly pink seed head, this annual herb thrives in moist nutrient rich habitats. Its soft leaves were a favourite food of reindeer and fast growing invasive plants outcompeted it for space in prime habitats. Happily, swathes of this iconic plant can now be seen in abundance.
80p White-chinned petrel –The white-chinned petrel relies on steep tussock covered slopes in which to build its underground nests. As reindeer stripped away vegetation the white-chinned petrel needed, and rodents predated its eggs, this shy bird was becoming an increasingly rare sight. With the removal of these non-native species, white-chinned petrels are becoming more and more common.
£1.05 Storm petrel – With its distinctive dangling legs, this tiny sea bird was previously rarely seen in South Georgia’s inshore waters. Nesting in rocky crevices near to the shore, it was a prime target for rodents. Now great flocks of these beautiful little birds can be seen dancing across the bays and inlets of the island.
£1.25 South Georgia pintail – An endemic subspecies, the South Georgia pintail nests in tussock fringed pools near to the coast. In the presence of rats and reindeer its numbers were depleted. Now its habitat has been restored, pintails are able to raise up to a dozen chicks a year and its distinctive ‘chirrup chirrup’ fills the evening air.
40p: Andy Black
55p, 80p, FDC: John Dickens
70p: Paula O’Sullivan
£1.05, £1.25: Kerstin Langenberger
Design: Bee Design
Process: Stochastic lithography
Perforation: 13 ¼ x 13 ½ per 2cms
Stamp size: 42 x 28mm
Sheet layout: 10
Release date: 20 September, 2019
Production Co-ordination: Creative Direction (Worldwide) Ltd