The 2nd Fountainhill Estate (FHE) Research Symposium was a great success and like the first, attracted a strong contingent of academics, citizen scientists and interested laymen. While the thematic separation of research into each of the two days had some merit and allowed for a more detailed approach, to our strategic water resources, as well as to the more eclectic and wide-ranging bio-diversity disciplines, it did detract from the intriguing aspect of the informative inter-disciplinary discussions that ensued at the previous symposium relating to bio-diversity and the connectivity between disciplines and agriculture.
Future symposia may therefore return to the multi-disciplinary format to reinforce the need for sharing expertise among disciplines. This approach also appears to be that of the DeBeers-Oppenheimer Research Symposia, which is in its 8th year of presenting research undertaken on their properties, and which I had the good fortune to attend.
The symposium highlighted numerous opportunities for further research, collaboration between disciplines as well as developing synergies for the promotion and development of the Environmental Awareness & Education (EAE) programme.
On the research front it has become clear that FHE is fast becoming a favoured research site and facility, because of its diversity, the proximity to Pietermaritzburg and Durban and its strategic placement in the uMgeni river catchment. The symposium proposed a more structured approach to accepting research projects on the property. To this end a Research Steering Committee under the leadership of Prof. Albert Modi has been set up to evaluate research projects for endorsement.
Similarly FHE and the Taeuber Management Trust (TMT) compile research topics considered important to the property. This, together with previously identified priorities, has resulted in the following topics being considered, and currently under investigation: “The impact of management interventions on vegetation and changes in the composition of veld and indigenous bush”; “An assessment of the water resources of FHE”; “The documentation and DNA analysis of FHE amphibian (frog) species, to determine environmental health of the Estate, and to develop a practical technique for future assessments”. Future study directions may focus on a study of arachnids for the determination of veld health; studies of the role of wetlands in processing agricultural “contaminants” such as nitrates and phosphates; the impact of and management of fragmented environmental habitats in the preservation and conservation of bio-diversity.
The TMT announced its intent to support critical research in the future.
Agreement was concluded with the Lepidopterists’ Society of South Africa, in the person of Kevin Cockburn, to assist and promote the protection of “buttermoths” and their habitats by creating a better understanding of these creatures and the role they play in our ecology. Similarly collaborative arrangements are being worked on to promote environmental education to the community and specific target groups, as well as joint discussions with neighbouring properties to explore expansion of conservation areas under best management within the context of the Central Umgeni Conservancy (CUC) and a proposed Bio-Diversity Stewardship programme.
Specific projects being explored with neighbours and conservation specialists include the reintroduction of Cape Vulture into the area and the establishment of an indigenous plant nursery in support of the rehabilitation of areas denuded of indigenous species due to alien invaders and destructive management.
Some of the Environmental Awareness & Education (EAE) programme elements are gaining momentum with a number of nature trails and raptor courses having been reserved for 2018. Similarly we hope to include a presentation by Kevin Cockburn on local butterfly’s, their habitat and role in the ecological system to promote conservation and environmental awareness among the community. Preliminary discussions have been held with Dr Jim Taylor (WESSA) and Dr Mark Graham (Ground Truth), to engage in an educational programme on the strategic water resources of the uMgeni catchment. It is aimed at Local Government leadership and cascading down to scholars from the previously disadvantaged groups. In this regard a presentation to the uMshwati Municipality has been made to elicit their support for such an education programme and financial commitment toward transport and feeding of such beneficiaries that may attend such environmental experiences on FHE. Their feedback is awaited.
Similarly overtures have been made to Umgeni Water to avail FHE as a resource facility, to them for their educational programmes on river health and water quality.
Free Me and KZN Conservancy have expressed interest in running their EAE courses on FHE for junior custodians of the environment, from both disadvantaged and privileged backgrounds. WESSA, in the persons of Matthew Cocks & Vivo Venter, have expressed an interest in exploring opportunities to utilise FHE as an alternate site for satellite environmental training initiatives and as a locale for the prestigious President’s Hike assessments.
The Central Umgeni Conservancy (CUC) is also showing positive improvements and benefits to mutual cooperation among landowners. The “Public-Private Partnership” (PPP) with the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA), aimed at combating alien invaders is not only having a positive effect on the status of the conservation area but also contributing to the socio-economic aspects of the local populace. The first quarter saw control measures being implemented on 1073 ha within the CUC and employment opportunities within this period amounting to 4217 mandays, following substantial investment by all parties to the PPP. It is hoped that this pilot programme will continue in the new financial year, with budget provision by the DEA, and that the objective to roll it out among neighbours within the uMgeni cathment is achieved.
As mentioned previously, the collective efforts of members to the CUC are being deployed in the Cape Vulture project and in endeavouring to protect conservation areas through the formalisation of the Bio-diversity Stewardship programme. The latter is being undertaken with the assistance of Conservation Outcomes. These activities reinforce the benefit of collective efforts by the CUC.
The CUC has also merged environmental audits of fauna & flora and currently boast 484 flowering indigenous plants, 29 grass species, 221 indigenous tree species, 331 birds, 33 mammal species, 9 listed reptiles and 44 “buttermoth” species. We hope to add to this rich resource list as audits become more exhaustive and as species are re-introduced.
The Survey of Water Resources of FHE, commissioned through SRK Consulting, has been completed and provides a good baseline against which to monitor our water resources and ensure that management practices take due consideration of certain issues. It has also exposed areas of additional monitoring management and possible research, to gain a more complete understanding of the movement of surface and underground water, as well as the movement of minerals and nutrients within these flows.
The TMT has approved the involvement of personnel beyond the confines of the property, where such efforts are aimed at the dissemination of the conservation ethos required to protect, conserve and link the fragmented conservation units remaining in the strategic uMgeni catchment. An attempt will be made to link with and collaborate at an operational level with organisations and bodies already engaged in these activities, within the catchment. To further support this approach plans are being compiled to provide a centralised Centre of Excellence for Bio-Diversity Stewardship, at the original homestead of our founder, Mr. Ernst Taeuber. The intention being to avail this facility for the benefit of organisations engaged in biological studies, conservation and environmental preservation efforts.
In order to promote the objectives and activities of FHE, TMT, CUC and all other parties associated with these exciting developments a new web page is being designed and will be launched in the near future.
From a productive perspective FHE was blessed with a successful 2017, following the devastating droughts of the previous two and a half seasons. The sugar cane, avocado and maize silage enterprises produced well and ensured a firm financial footing for the coming years. It has also been pleasing to observe early signs of improved vegetative cover from the burning and veld management programmes engaged in over the past four years. This has been re-affirmed with visual observations of healthy wildlife numbers and high calving percentages. These population increases will in most likelihood be confirmed in our annual game count. In keeping with the need to farm in harmony with nature and to cross subsidise non-commercial enterprises with income generated by commercial operations, avocado and cane expansion programmes are well under way.
The vision of TMT and FHE Board directors must be commended for promoting the concept of sustainable farming and environmental management, for the greater societal benefit. However, this approach would also have difficulty, were it not for the enthusiasm and passion of other landowners, who have displayed support for and become involved in the overall process of ensuring that we, as custodians of the land and its resources, protect them for the benefit of future generations.
General Manager: FHE
083 321 4100
(Previous copies of this newsletter are available upon request)