Invasive species dominate Bermuda’s wooded areas. Trees such as Brazilian peppers and casuarinas grow and reproduce faster than native flora, and so outcompete them in the battle for sunlight and nutrients.

Restoring the island’s ecosystem — the bubble of life in which native and endemic species of flora and fauna can co-exist in equilibrium — is a worthy goal. But given the land, resources, expertise and thousands of hours of manual labour required, is it a realistic aim?

The team at the Bermuda Zoological Society believe it’s a goal worth striving for. They have made an energetic start with the BZS Micro Forest Project and they hope their enthusiasm will prove infectious.

In the project’s first year, the results have been impressive. With the help of an army of volunteers, ten micro forests have been established across the island. The work entailed clearing the selected areas of invasive species before planting with a diverse mixture of native and endemic seedlings.

Nicholas Coelho, BZS micro forest officer, who leads the project, keeps a close track of progress. A total of 32,090 invasives have been culled and replaced with 1,610 natives and endemics. The new plantings have a survival rate of more than 90 percent.

The total area of micro forests amounts to nearly 21,000 square feet in locations including schoolyards, roadside strips and on small islands. A total of 387 volunteers put in a combined 1,100 hours of work.

With HSBC Bermuda coming on board as lead sponsor, the momentum is building and the aim is to plant another ten micro forests with at least 1,500 seedlings in 2023, followed by the same again 2024.

“We’re trying to fill small plots of land with native and endemic species,” Coelho said. “The beauty of this is that once these sites are established, after about three years, we should not need to do any maintenance. And then hopefully we will start to see birds and wildlife return to parts of the island where they had not been present before.”

The pilot micro forest site was on Jennings Road, Smith’s, close to the Railway Trail bridge. A 1,340-square-foot plot covered with cane grass was cleared and planted with native specimens that are now thriving. “Some of those trees have grown almost a foot and a half over the past year,” Coelho said. “It’s flourishing and it’s amazing to see.”

Other micro forest locations are: Warwick Playground, Flatts Public Dock, Trunk Island (Coastal Mangrove), Dalton E. Tucker Primary School, the Bermuda Aquarium Museum and Zoo’s Coastal Micro Forest site, Trunk Island (Micro Forest), Spittal Pond, Riddell’s Bay and Admiralty House Park.

High-density planting techniques used to establish the micro forests are based on the Japanese Miyawaki model. This differs from tree-planting and conservation efforts historically preferred in Bermuda, which would traditionally involve cedar trees being planted about six feet apart, Coelho said, and the addition of other species later.

“In the micro forests, we plant everything together,” he said. “We have cedars in the emergent layer that grow high. We have meadows under the canopy layer, then we have understory like shrubs, which stay pretty small. By using this method, the natives crowd out the invasives.”

Early in their establishment, the micro forests need regular attention to weed out any invasives that find their way in. After three years, the hope is that they will be self-sufficient, as has been the case with many Miyawaki projects in Japan.

Some of the 28 native species planted are: Bermuda Olivewood, Green Buttonwood, Bermuda Palmetto, Bermuda Cedar, Green Sea Oxeye, Jamaican Dogwood, Bermuda Snowberry, Seven Year Apple, Turkey Berry/American Beauty Berry, Tassel Plant, Doc Bush, Darrell’s Fleabane, Tunera, Yellowwood, Box Briar, Coast Sephora, Red Mangrove and Wax Myrtle.

The BZS has developed a nursey on Trunk Island with the aim of propagating 3,000 seedlings a year. Weekend volunteers assist with the considerable workload.

The BZS team is using technological aids to track the progress of the micro forests, generating a significant trove of data. Plants are individually surveyed, given a health rating and measured, by height and diameter, with the results stored in an internal app. Drones are also used to track the changes in micro forests over time and to survey potential sites for new ones, with a capability to generate 3D models.

Using the data collected, the team can calculate biomass, both above and below the ground, which enables a calculation of how much carbon dioxide the micro forests have removed from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. This ties in with one of the key reasons why the project was launched in the first place — to address climate change.

Project funding has come from several corporate donors. “Each year, we need $170,000 to cover our operational costs,” said Lynda Johnson, Fund Development Officer for the BZS. “RenaissanceRe was our founding sponsor, providing the initial funding for the pilot project to see whether this could work and they continue to support us. A number of others have also joined us on this journey.

“We’re very privileged that HSBC has come on board as our lead sponsor. It’s a huge commitment from them and it also demonstrates their confidence in the programme.”

Clesia Pachai, HSBC Community Investment Manager, shared that “HSBC is delighted to partner with BZS on this ambitious initiative as Lead Sponsor.  Over the past 12 years, HSBC has invested an estimated $950,000 to local environmental charities and projects that focused on strengthening biodiversity, restoring ecosystem health, fostering conservation and promoting environmental education in Bermuda.  A project of this magnitude requires great collaboration and commitment across stakeholders in our community and after a two-year pause, we look forward to reinstating our volunteering activities and our colleagues reconnecting again with nature and each other and build on the momentum and successes of our corporate partners to help develop 10 additional micro-forests sites by year-end.”

The Department of Parks has also been supportive of the project, allowing micro forests to be established on areas it oversees. Increasingly, private landowners are also cooperating with micro forest sites that encroach on their properties and some want to be a part of the project.

“That’s the goal — to gain public interest, so that people want to do this themselves,” Coelho said. “Anyone can plant a micro forest on their own property. It doesn’t have to be a large piece of land.”

The strong participation of children — 38 per cent of last year’s volunteers were under the age of 18 — will serve to extend the project’s legacy benefits. Dalton E Tucker Primary School was the first school to host a micro forest, with 68 of its students helping out.

“It was amazing, seeing the engagement they had, physically doing it themselves,” Coelho said. “Every class was so excited to get their hands dirty. You instil this sense of sustainability in the kids and that carries over to their parents. It’s a full cycle.”