Falkland Islands: A shortage of eggs

Penguins on Falkland Islands

The presence of Prince William on RAF duty on the Falkland Islands has escalated tensions between the UK and Argentina in recent weeks. But for the islanders, the new trade restrictions are their most pressing concern.

"Have you been hit, sir?" I was asked as I was ushered into the drawing room of Government House on the seafront in Stanley. "Have you been hit by the egg shortage?"

And I thought, yes, although I hadn't realised it until this moment, I had indeed been hit by the egg shortage.

The drawing room of Government House is a splendid Victorian space and as you take your seat, all the British monarchs who have reigned since the islands became British look down at you from their magnificent framed portraits.

Queen Victoria, Edward VII and his Danish queen, Alexandra. George V and Queen Mary. Even, surprisingly, Edward VIII, then George VI and Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II.

On the mantelpiece is a silver cigarette case presented, in 1933, to the then governor of the islands to mark the 100th anniversary of British sovereignty.

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Everywhere you go, you are reminded of how deep the roots of Britishness go. Falkland Islanders will slip into conversation, early in your encounter, their generation count.

"I'm seventh generation," one sheep farmer told me. "My grandchildren are ninth generation Falkland Islanders."

He was one of many who made the same claim to belonging, authentically and indisputably, to this little outcrop of British identity in the windblown South Atlantic.

"Yes," I said. "As a matter of fact, I have been hit by the egg shortage." For at breakfast that morning, I had nonchalantly ordered two poached eggs on toast.

It was one of those moments when you realise that, as an outsider, you have failed to pick up on a matter of local custom and have momentarily caused embarrassment to your hosts.

"Two eggs, sir?" the lady said. "I'm afraid that won't be possible. We are down to one egg apiece now."

Recent tensions

  • Dec 2011: Mercosur, a South American trading bloc, closes its ports to ships flying the Falkland Islands flag
  • Jan 2012: UK says it is sending one of its newest destroyers, HMS Dauntless, to the South Atlantic in 'routine' deployment
  • Feb 2012: Prince William begins six-week RAF duty and Argentina says it will complain to UN about 'militarisation' of area

The 2,500 people who live here are among the most isolated in the world and are getting more so.

The editor of the local newspaper, whimsically called Penguin News, wrote in her editorial this week about being asked again and again by visiting journalists to express the islanders' excitement about the presence here of Prince William, on a six-week tour of duty as a helicopter pilot.

She described instead a call she had received from a friend who was bubbling over with joy not because of Prince William - and all that his stay here symbolised about the all-important bond between these islands and Britain - but because she managed to grow a pepper and a cucumber.

Like eggs, fresh vegetables are increasingly hard to come by. The islands - acre for acre - aren't much smaller than Wales, but the land is rocky and unyielding.

Penguin News The local newspaper says the big issue is food, not Prince William

You can drive for mile after mile across peaty moorlands of black and pale yellow. There are no trees, for wind comes in at you with such a force from the cold Atlantic that nothing stands a chance. I visited a sheep farm - 19,000 acres to sustain 2,500 sheep.

In other words, each individual sheep needs seven acres of land to get through the year. That's how ungiving this land is. And yet the Falkland Islanders make it work.

But you can't get eggs and you can't get vegetables. South America once traded happily with the islanders, supplying all their needs. But Buenos Aires has been working hard to cut the islands off.

Recently, Argentina persuaded other South American countries to turn Falklands-flagged vessels away from their ports. Ships rounding Cape Horn heading for the Falklands are routinely stopped, searched and delayed, so much so that merchant vessels have largely given up trying.

Empty supermarket shelves Fresh vegetables are increasingly hard to come by

But they are an unflappable lot, the Falkland Islanders. They keep calm and carry on.

They also seem strikingly egalitarian, unimpressed by status or rank. Ask them about Prince William and they will say they are glad he is here, but that he's here to do a job and so are a lot of other young servicemen and women whose names you don't know and we are just as glad they're here.

The editor of Penguin News - combining the two big stories of the prince and the fresh produce shortage - was in no doubt which she considered more germane to the life and wellbeing of the islanders.

"Were I to obtain an interview with the dashing young royal," she wrote, "my first question might well be - did you bring any bananas?"

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