The Hunt for the Macquarie Island Azorella

By Head Hunter Natalie Tapson

  1. Location details, where is it, how did you get there, how remote is this location? : Plant hunting on Macquarie Island – Subantarctic Macquarie Island is a tiny speck in the Southern Ocean, 1500km below Tasmania. It is a world heritage area managed by the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service. It took 3 days by ship on L’Astrolabe to get to Macca as it is commonly called. That is the only way on or off the island, there are no air services at all.
  1. What are the purposes / aims of your plant hunt? : I came to Macquarie Island to increase the seed orchard set up by the RTBG in 2010 for the threatened cushion plant, Azorella macquariensis, from 9 to over 50 plants. When we are collecting species for the RTBG seed bank, we always aim to collect seed from at least 50 plants to capture the genetic diversity within each species. The orchard is a bit like a typical apple orchard, we grow the plants in one location to make it easy to collect the seed which can then be stored for up to 200 years in the seed bank back at the Gardens.
  1. Is this a unique program, what’s so special about it? : Azorella macquariensis, which only grows on Macquarie Island, has undergone a catastrophic decline right across the island since late 2008 and so far no single cause has been found for the dieback. Normally our seed orchards are held as potted collections at the RTBG but the cushion plant has proven difficult to grow in the mild conditions in Hobart so we decided the next best thing was to set up a seed orchard on Macquarie Island. It grows naturally in the very windy, extreme environment on the plateau but we have set up the orchard on Wireless Hill, just above the station, so we have close-by access to collect the seed.
  1. What do you need to take with you? (Equipment, special clothes, food, any fun or funny items?) : A lot of equipment to build the orchard was shipped to Macquarie Island and then fortunately dropped by helicopter up on Wireless Hill. There were 4 large crates waiting for me when I arrived with most of the material to make the potting mix, the frames and pots to put them in, a new water tank and pump to run the irrigation. When working on the hill in the sometimes very wet and windy conditions I wear a windproof coat and over-pants, a balaclava and lots of different sorts of gloves – woollen ones to keep my hands warm, leather gloves to hang onto the rope going up and down the hill in the strong wind and of course gardening gloves. The equipment I need out in the field to collect plants is again lots of layers of warm and windproof clothes, the backpack with all my emergency equipment such as a bivvy bag to shelter in, snow goggles and first aid kit and a GPS, trowel, disinfectant, bags and tags to collect the plants.
  1. What limiting factors influence your ability to do this work? (weather, access, transport, money, etc) : The weather is the major limiting factor when working on Macquarie Island – wind (lots of it), rain, hail, snow, sunshine – and usually all on one day. The reality is that you just have to get the job done irrespective of the weather and it is all part of the Macquarie Island experience and it has certainly been a fantastic experience working here.
  1. How long are you there for? : I will have been on the island for 7 weeks by the time I leave and should have all 45 plants bedded into their pots to hopefully grow on to provide seed in a few years.
  1. How many people do you take and why are they there? : I came on the ship with 14 other people who do a range of different things from a chef to people working on the Macquarie Island pest eradication project and we brought the number of people at the base up to 36. Building the seed orchard and collecting plants is my job on the island but I couldn’t do it without the help of a lot of other people here. Among other things I have had help with carrying peat and pebbles for the pots up the steep incline to Wireless Hill and the plumber and electrician have worked to install the water tank and make sure the pump is running properly. I have been working with the ranger to plan field trips and map collection sites, been out in the field with people who do various other jobs here and most importantly the pest eradication team have collected many plants for me in areas I would not have time to get to while I am on the island.
  1. Is it very expensive to go on a plant hunt? : It is very expensive to get to and stay on Macquarie Island and the project would not have gone ahead without $22,000 of funding provided by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife. The station is run by the Australian Antarctic Division and there are only a limited number of places on the base at one time so the RTBG were fortunate to secure a place for part of the 2013/2014 summer season.
  1. What organisations are involved in your plant hunt? : The RTBG has had to work closely with a range of organisations for this project to go ahead. We have been involved in the response to the dieback since 2009 and have worked closely with Tasmanian government Biodiversity Conservation Branch and Parks and Wildlife Service and the Australian Antarctic Division. Crucially, some of the funding for the project was provided by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife.

Keep hunting…