What an unsettling period 2020 has been and undoubtedly rebuilding our economy and activities, both nationally and on the home-front will take some time and effort as we emerge from the restrictive corona regulations. Agricultural activities suffered little direct disruption, during the Covid-19 lockdown, yet became “victims” in other ways, as has biodiversity. The lockdown also provided a window of opportunity to reassess and reinvent aspects of our operation – these efforts now need to be put to the test.
The Biodiversity Stewardship Programme, is one of the victims, not only has it been neglected by KZN Wildlife, it was then redirected to the MEC’s office, in early-March where it is presently collecting dust. The inertia and apparent dysfunctionality of State departments mandated to protect and conserve our environment, is extremely concerning. Reports collected from members of the Central Umgeni Protected Area (CUPA) suggest that this neglect extends into conservation areas surrounding Nagle dam. This is of concern when one considers the promising initial approaches Conservation Outcomes & the INR had with the Gcumisa Tribal Authority and Msinsi Holdings toward extending a conservation corridor between Albert Falls dam and Nagle dam.
The saying ‘’A fish rots from the Head” is sadly proving itself true, as the lockdown period has exposed Fountainhill Estate (FHE), and agriculture in general, to increased levels of poaching and petty theft, from local communities, that suggest an imminent collapse of regard for law and property, in civil society. This is likely due to a perception that corruption and inefficiency at senior levels provides a license toward anarchy. Government intervention and political will are desperately required to remedy the situation, through a display of strong and ethical leadership.
The purpose of this newsletter has never been to dwell on the negative aspects and I must apologise for the previous paragraphs, but the situation needs airing.
There have been numerous positive developments among the private landowners that comprise CUPA, with FHE using the enforced social inactivity of the lockdown to mark out numerous trails, that will be opened for public use during September. The first is “The Reiche Trail”, named for the forefathers of the Taeuber family and original owners of most of what now comprises FHE. This trail has been designed with various levels of ability in mind and comprises 5 sub-sections, to allow hikers, trail runners and cyclists the opportunity to match distance and degree of difficulty to their personal circumstances. The entire trail encompasses 20.5 km of natural grassland and bushveld that display the environmental beauty of FHE. Participants are able to cobble together any of the five sub-trails into 4, 6.6, 11.6, 16.2, or the full 20.5 km distance, or variations thereof. The Reiche Trail allows one to wander through natural game, offering exceptional access to the 278 bird species recorded at FHE and offers spectacular scenery and views of the property and the surrounding countryside. The trail is displayed on our web page with links to the Strava app.
An Open Trail Day has been scheduled for 19 September 2020 to introduce selected members of the public to our offering. Additional trails are in various stages of completion “The Mottram Trail” provides a testing extension of 16km to The Reiche Trail for serious cyclists wanting a longer distance. The Mottram Trail is presently being mapped. “The Albert Modi Sunset Trail” (9.5km) has been marked and is designed to allow for late afternoon walks by guests, to take in the spectacular scenery and sunsets that grace the estate. This trail still requires mapping. Finally, the concept for “The Kinvig River Walk”, along the uMgeni river, is in the planning stages. Beyond these trails, the property offers many more opportunities but these will be developed as demand becomes evident.
Cumberland Nature Reserve has also been active and launches the first in its birding walks with specialist birders from Rockjumper during September, with its inaugural walk being over-subscribed. Both initiatives are well timed to provide outdoor activities for the public that has had its movement and activity severely constrained in the last 5 months.
An unfortunate victim of the corona virus has also been our annual research symposium, which has had to be cancelled. However, we are planning a series of on-line meetings, or webinars, to highlight the intended theme of the 2020 symposium “Understanding the Impacts of Land Use & Management Strategies on Biodiversity”. Details will be circulated as soon as plans have been finalised with our partners UKZN, SANBI and the INR.
Ongoing research was also hampered during lockdown and as previously reported by climatic factors. The soil survey, conducted by Kurt Bariechievy, has been completed. A report and maps are being compiled. Measuring instruments for the Closed Water Balance Model, being put together by SRK Consulting, are being installed. Unfortunately, the small mammal and reptile surveys, being carried out by Cameron Cormac of UKZN under the supervision of Prof. Colleen Downs suffered due to lockdown restrictions and will hopefully resume shortly.
The project to investigate the Reintroduction of Cape Vulture, will be resumed shortly. Fortunately, the Raptor Scoping Surveys, undertaken by Tammy Caine & Wade Whitehead of Free Me continue and are providing some interesting dynamics of the many resident and migratory raptor species that occur on FHE, over successive seasons.
A new trial aimed at exploiting the commercial potential of traditional crops is being established by Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudi & Kyle Reddy of UKZN. Numerous other research projects are on-going and involve Lindelwa Msweli (UKZN), Raji Abidiemi (UKZN), and Matthew Burnett (UKZN), the combined and multi-faceted research project on alien invasive plants and their control being undertaken by SEBEI, and the in-house rangeland monitoring programme supported by the advisory support of Cobus Botha. A bulk grazing trial is being launched to improve rangeland condition, with cattle being used to provide the services of buffalo. FHE is being considered as part of an EFTEON Central-KZN Landscape research project, to measure long-term environmental and socio-ecological factors, being managed by SAEON. Furthermore, FHE is undertaking a protective netting trial of avocados. The SASRI trial on sugar cane nematode treatments continues, as does the avocado & soil health of avocado being monitored by UPL Chemicals.
Climatically 2020 has blessed the local area with good rainfall, way into July, and one can but hope that this continues for some seasons to come as the erratic patterns of the past few years continue to impact negatively on crop productivity. The 2020 cane crop for example suffered under a dry 2018 spring and early summer as well as an extended dry period of 6 months from May to October 2019 evidenced in yield and quality this season. The avocado crop has been similarly impacted by strong winds, hail and an extremely cold winter with severe frosts this year. This has not been assisted in the least with the brazen and rampant theft of avocados, by the local communities, occurring at all times of the day and night.
An exciting undertaking at FHE has been the development of a commercial avocado nursery, involving the construction of a new greenhouse and re-purposing infrastructure previously used for the dairy. Production of clonal rootstock trees for own expansion and commercial sales is being initiated this month.
As South Africa and the global economy emerge from the pandemic of Covid-19, unified efforts and collaboration will be required to regain lost ground, re-design the way we work and exploit new opportunities. The earlier comments suggest that the private sector may be required to play an ever-increasing role and shoulder the substantial financial burden of these efforts. We can only hope that our national and political leaders make the necessary adaptations and efforts to facilitate this reconstruction!
Yours in Conservation & Agriculture,
General Manager: FHE
083 321 4100
(Previous copies of this newsletter are available on the Web page)