Thursday, 12 April 2012

"Slow. Minefield" ! And now for the good news.....

"Slow. Minefields"

Although many visitors to the Falkland Islands arrive via cruise ships, most residents and longer-stay visitors arrive by air at Mount Pleasant Airport.  They are then usually driven the 35 miles to Stanley, and after admiring the rolling scenery for about 20 miles, the last 10 miles into Stanley brings the road closer to the hills where the final stages of the Falklands War were played out.

The road from Stanley, with Mts William, Tumbledown, and Longdon.  All battlefields.

 It is then that visitors may notice the most obvious and dangerous legacy of the war - road signs warning "Slow - Minefield"!
Grass wren on minefield fence
Sadly, it is the case that over 100 minefields remain in the Falklands, many of them dotted around the countryside near Stanley.  Happily, though, I don't think there's a been a single civilian injury caused by mines here in 30 years.  The reasons why these minefields remain, and why no-one has been hurt recently is largely down to the vision of one man.
Minefield 28, with Mt William behind
 Recently, there has been a lot of activity by a team from a company called BACTEC (motto - "Making the World a Safer Place"), which was founded by Guy Lucas, MBE.  Guy was a Major in command of the Royal Engineers' Explosive Ordnance and Disposal (EOD) efforts in 1982-83.

Gypsy Cove and Yorke Bay. Stanley airport beyond the (mined) dunes.

After leaving the Army in 1990 he formed a company, BACTEC, to continue the work, worldwide, of clearing up explosives.  There's no shortage of work.... Recently, a  team of BACTEC Zimbabwean explosive disposal  and demining experts,  have worked for 3 months to locate and destroy unexploded ordnance.  Quite simply: finding, and safely destroying, ammunition, grenades, missiles, mines, rockets, explosives etc, which had been abandoned in the immediate aftermath of the war.

Immediate Aftermath -

Immediately after the surrender of the Argentine forces on 14th June 1982, it became obvious that the clearing up of war debris would be a mammoth and dangerous task  Millions of shells and bullets had been fired by both sides.  It was said that walking around Stanley, it was not possible to walk 5 paces without stepping on ammunition, spent or otherwise.

Worse,  it very quickly became clear that many mines had been laid by Argentine troops to prevent British forces moving over the low-lying terrain towards Stanley.  Worse still, after interrogating many of the captured teams of mine-layers, it emerged that, as the war neared its end, desperate measure were employed and detailed maps of the minefields had not been produced!  It was discovered that some mines had been laid from helicopters.

Mined sand dunes at Yorke Bay, near Stanley

Most of the captured Argentine mine specialists were happy to co-operate with British Army engineers to help locate and document the minefields, but after 2 British soldiers were badly injured by mines while following Argentines through a minefield, the decision was made to not risk further lives and limbs.  The edges of the minefields would be located, and then the minefields fenced and clearly signposted. The Argentine engineers were repatriated with the thousands of other prisoners.  Before boarding the troop ships, the engineers were asked how they had intended to clear the undocumented minefields if they had stayed in the Falklands for the long-term.  "With sheep!" was the reply!

The Falklands soil is mainly deep, damp peat and this allowed buried mines to sometimes move at a later date.  Also, a bulldozer working on a beach near Stanley was damaged by a mine that had been planted in the nearby dunes.  It's assumed the mine had been washed from the dunes by rain (or washed up on the tide).  So, these beaches have been cordoned off since 1982 and only penguins now stroll along them.
The beach to themselves...

Yorke Bay.  Only penguin feet tread the sand.
Magellenic pengiuns at Gypsy Cove.  No humans allowed
Tranquil Yorke Bay
Restoring the cleared minefields -

Surf Bay

Two years ago, BACTEC cleared ordnance from around the beautiful beach at Surf Bay, about 3 miles east of Stanley, near the airport, and one of the most-heavily defended (by Argentine forces) parts of the Falklands.  This, and Yorke Bay, was where invading troops were expected to land.

Surf's up at...Surf Bay!

The cleared dunes were fenced off and replanted with native grasses - partly to stabilise the dunes, and also to restore the ground cover with native, rather than alien, species.

Replanted grasses on reclaimed sand dunes

This week, I have been helping monitor the progress of the restoration, working with Falklands Conservation as a volunteer.  Much of the work involved assisting a scientist record the size of the plants and whether they had seeds, or had been grazed by (introduced) hares or rabbits.  We also recorded the presence of all other plants in the trial site.

Signs ask that the new grasses be undisturbed.

More details of Falklands Conservation work here -

The beach at Surf Bay is now enjoyed by many Falklanders, and is the scene of the mid-winter swim!  Brrrrrr!  (On Monday, I wore 2 fleeces, a thermal vest, thermal trousers and a windproof jacket, and was still cold - the wind was gusting!)

RECENT Clearances -
Map showing Stanley (top), and minefields (red).  Cleared area in green.

But, the most stirring event recently was the clearance of almost 4 million square metres of land, just south of Stanley.  Within this area was an old stone corral, built by Jacob Goss in the 1840s.  His descendant, Eric Goss, was in attendance at the Land Release ceremony, when the BACTEC representatives officially handed over the land to the Governor, Nigel Heywood.  Musicians played local folk songs and beer and snacks were liberally consumed by some.

Thick walls of stone corral
One local I spoke to said he'd played in the corral as a child and it was a popular picnic spot, not least because its thick walls are windproof!  He had last stood there as a teenager on 15th June 1982, when Army personnel had announced that the whole area was off-limits.  Now people can go for walks here, and reach an unspoilt part of the coastline that has been cut off for 30 years.

Musical entertainment
Guy Lucas recalled that he'd worked at that very spot 30 years ago, fencing off the minefield, and it gave him great satisfaction to return and see formerly-blighted land handed over to the community to enjoy once more.
South American TV news team and Zimbabwean mine clearer.

For more on the clearance, Penguin News has details -

The corral is about 0.5 mile in circumference.  Mt William in distance.

I know some people (both in the Falklands and in the UK) are rightly horrified at the situation about the minefields, but it just goes to show that, even if the minefields can't be completely removed, improvements can be made.
Social consequences.

As well as the immediately-obvious danger to life and limb that these minefields presented to the Forces and local population, there were also some subtle but significant changes to Falklands life.

Pay rates in Stanley, and in Camp, were generally low, but this was offset by access to free peat nearby, for fuel, and a seemingly-unlimited supply of Upland Geese, which grazed on the grasses throughout the islands.  No-one went hungry.

However, much of the peat was now in the middle of minefields, as were the geese.  Heating fuel (propane and kerosene) and more food now had to be imported from the UK.  Wages had to be increased to pay for the extra costs.  The economy had to grow to pay for the rising wages.....

I'm told peat stoves are difficult to light and, once lit, need to be monitored to avoid going out.  For this reason, almost everyone in Stanley would return home at lunchtime (or is it "dinner"?),  to check on the stove.   But, even with the advent of mains electricity, it seems most people still return home at lunchtime.  Some traditions are worth keeping!

Enjoy your dinner, whenever you have it!

[PS. I gleaned a lot of interesting information from this book - "Falklands Aftermath",  by Maj-Gen Edward Fursdon. Well worth a read if you want to know what happens after a small war in your back garden!]


  1. Love the post (again). Do you have heating in your home and what is it? How do you cook and on what? Do you cook the geese? Can you eat penquin? Do the penquins step on the mines? Do you eat the hares and rabbits you mention? Is hunting allowed? Just interested in gastronomy!

  2. Thank you. Yes, full central heating, as estate agents would say, if there were any here. Our house was built from a kit. Unusually, all houses in the street are the same, and a gift from the States of Jersey after the war - as the Channel Islands also suffered occupation by an enemy army.

    I have a 4-ring electric cooker, which I'm slowly getting used to, as I prefer gas. The heating is fuelled by kerosene - a large, ugly tank is refilled every month or so when I notice the level has reduced somewhat. I've been warned not to let it run out!

    I had goose last Christmas (in the UK), and lovely it was too, but I'm not sure I have the patience for plucking!

    Penguins tend only to be eaten in extremis by Antarctic explorers. Here they were killed in their thousands for their oil in the 1800s. A few people still gather their eggs, but this is done under licence, and is, I think, dying out.

    Penguins probably do step on the mines, but there are dozens of types of mines - anti-personnel mines are about 3 inches long and might need a pressure of, say, 20kg or more to activate. Others will be the size of dinner plates, and need a car or tank to set them off.

    The fences round the minefields also prevent sheep and cattle setting them off.

    I've never heard of anyone eating rabbits or hares - they may be too much effort. I suspect they are not the plump, fluffy bunnies you see in the UK, but more the lean, hardy type that is struggling for survival.

    I think shooting is very popular here - the Falklands send a shooting team to the Commonwealth Games - but, apart from the geese, I'm not sure what there is to hunt. There's certainly not much of a challenge with penguins or seals, as theses don't tend to run away!

    Raptors - turkey vultures and Caracaras especially - used to be killed by farmers, as it was felt they took too many lambs. There's a 3-year study about to start to see how man could co-exist with these rare birds.

    Gastronomy - not a term that crops up often here! I did borrow a Falklands cookery book, but couldn't get the hang of the baking instructions which were for peat stoves (eg, "put in a slow oven for a few hours" usually resulted in my smoke alarm going off!).

    However, I do have a cookbook ("Taste of the Falklands") by a local Chilean chef, Alex Olmedo, which combines Falklands produce with Chilean flavours. EG - Calamari Patagonica, Rack of Lamb au Chocolat. The photographs in the book are excellent, even if one didn't use the recipes. I must start experimenting!
    Let me know if you are curious about anything else!

  3. I have been reading your blog for a while now and find it very informative about life on the Falklands. I, also, have been reading the May's blog for over a years. I have become fascinated with life in this remote place. It is hard to find easily extensive literature on it. I have viewed all the available videos on the Falklands War, in English and Spanish. I have even read some historic tracts on the Internet Archive. There are other Internet sites I have found but yours is the best one for day to day living there and looking around.

    I often wonder how much the oil industry will change the islands. Such oil is a double edged sword for good and ill. It was an Venezuelan who called oil the "devils excrement". It certainly has been a mixed blessing for that country. As far as I can learn Norway has managed oil wealth the best. I last read they have saved 500 billion so far so that when all the oil is gone every Dane will have a pension. Sadly, my country, Canada, policy it get and sell as much oil as possible as fast as possible, the environment and future be damned.

    I am aware of the mine problem. Hopefully gradually the most valuable land will be cleared with a year after year effort. Do the British military not do some of this? The Falklands could be a place to train military personel to do this.

    I much admire the Falkands concern for improving the environment and conservation efforts.

    You wrote you have never eaten rabbit, perhaps you just meant wild rabbit. Rabbit is very nice and very lean. In the far north a rabbit only diet can be fatal since without fat one cannot sustain oneself against the cold. I could see wild rabbit on the Falklands, with few predators, could be a problem.

  4. Hi,
    I'm just going out, but would happily give a fuller answer if you want one....
    Mine problem - I guess the Army get enough real experience of mines in Afghanistan. Not sure they want to risk lives in the Falklands for little gain. Land is not scarce in the islands, so any land released is usually for leisure purposes. If I was a bomb disposal guy, I can think of higher priorities than creating somewhere for people to walk their dogs!
    The military DO use the islands for training.
    Conservation - it will be interesting in the next couple of years to see how the developing oil industry and the environment co-exist.
    I agree about Norway and its oil revenues. Also, Shetland in Scotland has been canny when it came to negotiating the best deal.
    It's likely that any oil extracted in Falklands' waters will be transhipped into tankers at sea and taken direct to refineries in consumer countries. So, no oil will actually flow through the islands.
    Some people will no doubt get rich offering support services, but I suspect most people will be unaffected, except to have a better standard of services from the Government. Just my view.

    Rabbit - I have eaten rabbit: just saying I haven't seen anyone eat it here! Yes - I have heard Man cannot live on rabbit alone. Someone has introduced foxes on one of the islands, but I suspect that experiment won't be repeated. There used to be a unique Falklands predator - the Warrah - which we exterminated around 1850. Darwin saw it, and reckoned its fate would be that of the Dodo - it had no fear of Man.

    "Mays blog" ? Which? Thanks for your interest and compliments. If you have other questions, please feel free to ask on here, or drop me an email, Peter