Defining the last few years as tumultuous would probably be appropriate. The pandemic set it off, the wanton destruction of the July riots in KZN and Gauteng – or should we call it the attempted insurrection, lest the political spin doctors start having us believe it as protest action, almost brought the country to its knees. Hardly had we recovered from that blow and the Russian megalomaniac initiated global turmoil in energy and food markets, with his invasion of Ukraine. The next body blow to those of us in KZN were the torrential rains in April and May of this year, resulting in destructive flooding and difficult agricultural conditions.
Global warming has been blamed for the destructive nature of these floods, but it is becoming the scapegoat for many of the failings of local government and the massive population growth that is resulting in human settlements developing in river catchments. Infrastructure is ill-maintained and proving inadequate for these new pressures – a big contributor being waste pollution which clogs up storm water infrastructure and destroys our riverine vegetation. How much longer can the human race avoid introspection on the responsibility, we and the democratically elected governments of this world, hold on the resultant erosion of our environment. Our survival rests solidly on us accepting that we need to actively change our behaviour, our policies and our attitude toward the planet that sustains us.
Hopefully these pressures will result in a reconsideration of our dependence on fossil fuels, as Russia is forcing Europe to do; will our politicians pay heed to the population explosion that is resulting from conflicting policies, promoting child bearing with grants while failing to invest in education, health services & infrastructure, thereby increasing unemployment beyond sustainable levels; and will our material desires be tempered by the impact our wasteful lifestyles are having on the level of pollutants in the environment? There are numerous other lessons and behavioural changes but hopefully I have managed to convey a semblance of the problem, sufficient for me to retire from my soap-box.
Regardless of the negative issues that impact greatly on society, there are always positives that brighten prospects for the future.
The Central Umgeni Protected Area (CUPA) initiative to protect fragments of biodiversity, worthy of protection, and the members’ desire to expand this into a protected conservation corridor, along the uMgeni river, is bearing fruit. Conservation Outcomes and the Institute of Natural Resources (INR) have successfully recruited Msinsi, at Nagle Dam, and the Gcumisa Tribal Authority into the Stewardship programme, with the former declaring the Nagle Dam property as a Nature Reserve and Gcumisa entering at the base level of the programme, that of Biodiversity Agreement. We now have an uninterrupted corridor extending along 40km of the uMgeni river, 17% of its 232km length, and covering 6254 ha. As at 2020, before CUPA was declared, National Parks occupied 3.75 mil. ha and Protected Stewardship areas accounted for 11.28 mil. ha, nationally – we are proud to be contributors to this spirit of conservation.
CUPA has no intention of stopping here and are hosting regular Stewardship Visits, in order to promote the principles and benefits to neighbouring land-users, in the hope that it will inspire others to join. CUPA is also engaging in an enabling capacity for new entrants to access services and benefits from the programme, such as alien plant control and eco-tourism.
An obligation of stewardship is to compile and adhere to a management plan aimed at conserving and enhancing the properties we are custodians of. The CUPA management plan was approved by the MEC of the KZN Provincial Council for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs (EDTEA), on 23 March 2022 and is being actively administered.
In order to apply consistent and scientific principles to rangeland management Fountainhill Estate (FHE) coordinated a grasslands management course presented by the Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, led by Cobus Botha and the team from the Bioresources Unit at Cedara. Veld assessments have been conducted and grazing and management strategies implemented in accordance with the available resources towards improved condition and biodiversity support systems.
Some members of CUPA are initiating a trade in Carbon Credits which allows them to recover a portion of their investment in conservation, into the future.
Hilton College, guided by WESSA, incorporated the FHE and its trails in their Isivivane Journey, covering some 220km over 15 days with a group of 148 Grade 10 students. This is a team building and leadership development initiative of Hilton College and FHE is proud to have contributed to the development of this group, and look forward to being a part of future journeys. This and the many hundred annual visitors to the Reiche Trails, on FHE, are some of the societal benefits derived from such stewardship sites, allowing members of the public to engage in first-hand contact with nature. A total of 65km of trails have now been cut and mapped on FHE, for the enjoyment of society. Cumberland Nature Reserve, a member of CUPA, similarly welcomes nature lovers to enjoy the benefits of this environmental awareness and contact.
St. Nicholas’ school, from Pietermaritzburg is starting to make regular use of FHE as a venue for their environmental outings and we hope that other schools will follow.
October saw the hosting of our 5th Research Symposium, in its ‘’original” format again, following the interruption forced on us by the pandemic. The symposium incorporated both physical and virtual attendance and presentations; made possible by the partnership of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). The success of the symposium was only possible due to the cooperation and support of the UKZN Centre for Transformative Agriculture & Food Systems, the UKZN Corporate Relations Department who provided all the technical expertise to enable such a format and of course the solid public relations support of the affiliated Friends of UKZN. A total of 30 papers were presented covering multi-disciplinary topics and included international researchers. The 6th symposium is presently being planned.
Research and surveys continue on FHE, the Closed Water Balance Model compiled by SRK Consulting, has been finalised but now intends to flesh this out with a PhD study funded by the Water Research Council, to determine the link between surface water systems and aquifers, their replenishment and recharge rates, conducted by Joss Cahi. The small mammal and reptile surveys (Cameron Cormac & Colleen Downs of UKZN), are in the final year of study, but have led to international interest in research on frog mimicry. This programme will be launched in 2022/23 in a collaborative project between the UKZN team and Jesse Delia of the American Museum of Natural History. The Raptor Scoping Surveys, continue under Tammy Caine & Wade Whitehead of Free Me in an effort to determine long-term seasonal patterns. The exploitation of the commercial potential of traditional crops by Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudi & Kyle Reddy of UKZN is continuing albeit under pressure of wild animals. Ian Kiepiel & Steve Johnson of the Centre for Functional Biodiversity, UKZN intend to further some preliminary work undertaken on the Natal Crocus Apodolirion buchananii , found on FHE.
Other research projects include the rangeland monitoring programme supported by Cobus Botha. The resulting bulk grazing trial continues into its second year. FHE is grateful for the support of Priscilla Dent in this project.
New and proposed research projects include a survey on ants, spiders and insects, by Caswell Munyai, studies on bats and the Nile Monitor Ecology, by Michaela White and Euan Geniever, respectively.
Agricultural research projects such as the protective netting over avocados, the SASRI trial on sugar cane nematode treatments & varieties, as well as the soil & tree health of avocado, being monitored by UPL Chemicals, are expected to provide further inciteful information this year.
The team from the University of Tübingen, Germany, under leadership of Gregor Bader & Manuel Will re-excavated the Holley Shelter, first examined by Gordon Cramb during the 50’s, in February of 2022. Their discoveries are proving exciting in this well-preserved site. We have incorporated collaborative assistance from the University of Johannesburg (Marlize Lombard) related to plant foods likely to have sustained Middle Stone Age Man, at the time; the University of Witwatersrand for carbon dating and identification of species from carbon remains; Trevor Hill (UKZN Geography Department) and colleagues from the University of the Free State are undertaking paleontological analyses on pollen in the layers of sediment extracted from the excavation. After the site was visited by Gavin Whitelaw of the KZN Natural History Museum with various archaeological experts Jeremy Hollman has been back to document the rock art, photographically. We look forward to compiling a comprehensive picture of the anthropological history of the site with the input of these experts.
While the heavy rains that have blessed KZN in recent months have provided agricultural challenges, they have provided some spectacular visuals, have replenished ground water tables, flushed river systems and re-invigorated the environment.
Sugar cane production continues to be pressured by poor milling performance that has resulted in crop carry-over from the 2021/22 season to the current season and it is predicted that such carry-overs will persist for some years to come.
Impacts of covid-19 and the Ukrainian invasion on production input costs, fuel and shipping prices, threaten not only agricultural production and sustainability but also international food supply. It is therefore expected that there will be a negative impact on avocado fruit export markets and returns, as well as on commodities in general.
The clonal avocado tree nursery is operating well and will have clonal trees for sale early in 2023. FHE is proud to have been accredited as a 5-Star nursery by the Avocado Nurserymen’s Association, in this its first year of production, a standard we hope to maintain into the future.
Regardless of the challenges we encounter we generally hold “that this too shall pass”. We trust that those intent on sowing destruction and that show disregard for the planet and society will be brought to book. We continue to wish all who work toward conservation and protection of our environment God speed!
Yours in Conservation & Agriculture,
General Manager: FHE