Saturday, 01 July 2017

Tidings of Tussac Grass: Falkland Islands

Written by Matthew Hay
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I couldn’t place the sound. It wasn’t one I had heard before. It was like the muffled hybrid of a bear’s growl and a dog’s bark; guttural, harsh and unsettling. I stopped dead, my heart pounding. I couldn’t see more than a meter in any direction, surrounded as I was by the 10-foot high tussac grass that covered this landscape, but all around me was movement and commotion. I hadn’t expected to find them here. Not yet. It was too soon.

Hoping not to startle my quarry any further I hopped up onto the stool of the nearest tussac stand, giving myself both visibility and vision. All around me southern sea lions bounded with surprising speed through the grass, spooked by the shouts of their fellows and eager to evade whatever threat might be lurking. When they were twenty meters away they congregated and turned to look at me, craning their necks above the foliage to peer inquisitively in my direction.

It was a surreal sight, gazing down at the many whiskered faces below me, their fur a mixture of browns, blacks, creams and beige. In amongst the group were some huge bulls, but there were also light-colored pups and all sizes in between. I noticed that one youngster had even climbed onto the back of a nearby adult to try and get a better glimpse of the human who had disturbed his rest. He seemed more excited than perturbed by the intrusion.

 

A Southern Sea Lion staring me down

This colony of sea lions was just one of many that inhabit the Falkland Islands, an archipelago in the South Atlantic some 300 miles east of Argentina. They spent their days at sea, fishing in the rich, cold waters before hauling out to sleep on land. Their preferred habitat was the jungle I had been wading through – mature stands of tussac grass, the staple of the Falklands’ terrestrial ecology.

No trees grow on these sub-Antarctic islands; cool summers and relentless wind preclude their establishment. Grass has evolved to fill the niche. Left undisturbed, the grass can grow to three meters tall and live for over 200 years. It sequesters as much carbon as many high-latitude trees, locking the greenhouse gas away as peat, which forms at its base as the lowest layers and oldest leaves of the plant slowly die and decompose beneath it.

Like the mighty oak of Europe’s forests, or the corals of tropical reefs, this keystone species also shoulders a disproportionate ecological burden, housing 46 of the Falklands’ 62 breeding birds and providing an essential habitat for the archipelago’s most charismatic wildlife; elephant seals, penguins and sea lions. Such an environmental asset was never going to be preserved by man.

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Last modified on Friday, 30 June 2017

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