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Tristan De Cunha - life and farming on the most remote inhabited island in the world

Farming on Tristan da Cunha

Agrimin were contacted by Sue Harvey, a vet living and working on Tristan da Cunha, to try and help out with some trace element problems in the Island's cattle. We asked Sue to tell us a little more about life and farming on the most remote inhabited island in the world.

Lying in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean 5300 miles from the UK and 1300 miles from the nearest island of St Helena, the British Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha is the world’s most remote inhabited island. Last year Tristan da Cunha celebrated 200 years of occupation. The early settlers farmed not only for their own subsistence but also for trade with passing sail ships. Meat, poultry and vegetable along with skin and crafts were traded for goods such as flour, tea, sugar, tobacco and clothing.

Tristan da Cunha is classic volcanic island. Most of which is unoccupied. The settlement, home to less than 300 people, is on a small coastal plain of about 1000 acres on the north east coast. There are 9 scheduled vessels a year that service the island and the trip from Cape Town can take anywhere between 5 and 10 days.

Nowadays the island has a thriving rock lobster industry. Weather permitting the island’s men take small boats out to catch the rock lobsters while the women help to process and pack them in the factory. Most years there are around 25 fishing days. That is days that the sea is calm enough to fish. All boats are removed by crane out of the harbour at the end of the day. Other islanders work for the government and goods can be bought at the one shop on the island. The small family cash income is supplemented by the growing of potatoes and the ownership of sheep and cattle.

Tristan da Cunha has evolved a unique system of stock ownership. Every family is entitled to 2 cows and every person to 2 sheep. Each family is also entitled to 1 dog, a second one being permitted once the original dog is over 8 years old. The majority of families choose to have working collies to help with the handling of the stock. Individual cattle and sheep are identified by a system of ear notches which allows other islanders to immediately identify the owner and thus be able to inform him or her if their animal needs attention. Grazing and general management is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture, while individual management is the responsibility of the owner.

The islanders take an active interest in their cattle. The milking herd consists of cows needing extra attention such as those about to calve, recently calved as well as those being milked. This herd is kept in paddocks (or as islanders say fences) around the settlement. The main herd is about 1-2 miles away nearer the potato patches. The sheep graze the pastures past the potato patches. There are also sheep higher up the mountain that do not fall within the quota system. No forage is conserved for the winter and keeping what amounts to nearly 400 head of cattle and 1000 sheep on 1000 acres has its challenges. The islanders will go out daily to check on their cattle. Some are still milked by hand though the majority of people buy their milk at the store. The cows learn to identify their owners call or vehicle and come running for a bucket of potatoes or cattle feed. The owner then has to stand guard while his cow eats her food, shoeing off anyone else’s stock that try to pinch some of the feed.

The trace element status of the cattle has been investigated and they have found to be severely deficient in copper and selenium. Further investigation is needed and arrangements are being made to have samples more regularly analysed at a laboratory in South Africa. Trial supplementation with Agrimin Smartrace Plus boluses has been initiated. Careful planning in ordering the boluses was needed as orders take 2 months to arrive on the island from the UK and there can be 2 months between shipments. I will report on our experience with the Agrimin boluses later in the year.

Sue Harvey. Tristan da Cunha Government Veterinary Surgeon.

February 2017