The Fountainhill Estate Bush Telegraph Vol. 13

Mar’24

Best that this thirteenth edition be penned and circulated before a full year has lapsed since the last communique.

National infrastructural decay continues to plague us, but the opportunity to start the regenerative efforts lies less than 3 months ahead of us in the national elections. It is unlikely to be an easy or rapid recovery process but the optimism that exists, coupled with our country’s survival instinct bode well for positive change if our electorate is considered in placing their mark.

Like many private institutions and individuals Fountainhill Estate (FHE) has installed numerous solar hubs aimed at reducing our dependence on the national grid. While this ensures that the economy ticks on, it reduces the ability of the national energy provider to improve its sustainability. Its financial base is becoming less reliant on Eskom purchases while our national leadership seems reluctant to encompass this private generating capacity in complimenting the energy demands. Crumbling water reticulation seems to be the next in an endless calamity of problems. We need change… and soon!

The past year has continued to provide an adequate sufficiency of moisture, the fourth consecutive year of above average rainfall. This, combined with the carry-over cane from 2022 and a successful milling season from Illovo (Noodsberg), ensured a record production of sugarcane. The planets were certainly aligned for us, as the avocado crop also contributed the biggest volume of fruit, since 2014. While the former performed in a high demand market with reasonable returns, the avocado market has still not recovered its pre-covid buoyancy and quality issues reduced the export percentage. A large contributing factor to poor quality resulted from extreme weather patterns (extreme temperatures, high windstorms, and frequent hail), a symptom, in recent years, of global warming. These new challenges must be adapted to with innovative management.

The clonal avocado nursery continues to improve on its performance and is targeting production of 20,000 trees during 2024. This is opportune in the development phase of the expanding local avocado industry. We were proud to maintain our 5-Star SAAGA & ANA accreditation, assuring potential growers of high-quality trees.

The sugar industry is still facing challenges, although the past year heralded some promising changes: Illovo invested heavily in the local mill resulting in a successful crushing season; the two milling companies under Business Rescue are implementing action plans that promise to re-establish some stability in the sugar industry; the sugar tax, remaining crop carry-over (albeit much reduced) and an ever-increasing National Minimum Wage continue to pose challenges to sustainability. Prospects for avocado are still muted due to wars and a poor global economy but SAAGA have successfully opened market access to China and Japan.

The assessment on past achievements captured in the Blue North Perspective Report, identified numerous opportunities for improvement in our efforts at regenerative farming. This has resulted in preliminary work toward a revised and more encompassing strategic plan for FHE. In these preparatory stages it has been pleasing to note that the 2015 Conservation Utilisation Plan, a first attempt at a holistic “Farming in Harmony with Nature” strategy, has guided our efforts and resulted in the implementation of most of the objectives formulated with the assistance of, the INR, Blue North, WWF and various individuals like Duncan Hay, Ted Maddams, John Hanks, Chris Galliers and directors Roy Mottram, Adrian Lavagna & Albert Modi. Most remain partners in our efforts and have made the realisation of that strategy possible. Watch this space for the “2024 & Beyond” strategy.

The Biodiversity Stewardship programme, our Solar Energy Management Plan, Alien & Invasive Plant Control programmes and support of research initiatives continue unabated. Unfortunately, work commitments hampered the hosting of Biodiversity Stewardship Visits, but it is our intention to resuscitate these this year. Efforts at implementing better management practices, under the Protected Area Management Plan continues to be explored and supported with research and interventions to exploit these objectives. The Department of Forestry, Fisheries & the Environment (DFFE) “Working on Water” & “Working on Fire” programmes continue to provide relief from encroaching undesirable plants and assist in the regeneration of rangeland health. The Bulk Grazing Trial being run in conjunction with Cobus Botha of the Department of Agriculture & Rural Development’s Bio-Resource Unit, and Priscilla Dent is starting to provide a database of impact to our rangelands. Early indications suggest an improved basal cover but a regression in veld condition, however these results may have been clouded by the exceptional growth conditions resulting in woody plant encroachment and a more rapid deterioration into a moribund state. There seem to
be no serious negative consequences to this trial presently.

 

Due to a need to finalise our licenced water use we have undertaken a wetland health survey, allowing us to carefully delineate wetland areas and engage in further regenerative initiatives.

FHE’s scientific approach, monitoring of interventions and the presence of research projects often align to highlight subtle changes, allowing early problem detection and adjusted management approaches. An example has been provided from observations made in the Bulk Grazing Trial and the Reptile & Amphibious Surveys. The former has suggested changes in grass species composition in areas subjected to runoff from sugarcane fields, indicative of N-leaching, while the latter has detected a declining amphibian and reptile population and in species composition through the altitudinal gradient of the farm, suggesting a negative impact that may be related to agricultural practices. While not conclusive it has created an awareness of the need to manage agro-chemical applications, while additional data is collected and analysed.

The 7th Annual Research Symposium was successfully hosted at FHE during Oct’23, while research continues into refinements of the Closed Water Balance Model by SRK Consulting; Raptor & Bat Scoping Surveys, continue under Tammy Caine & Wade Whitehead of Free Me; Avocado Pollination & Pollinator Studies by Timo van der Niett & Ruth Cozien; Python Research by Kirsty Kyle and Nile Monitor Surveys by Euan Geniever under supervision of Colleen Downs; and Impacts of Floodplains on Arthropod Populations by T Chonco & S Chamane-Nkuna under the supervision of Caswell Munyai and Rob Slotow of UKZN.

In-house observational research projects include the Rangeland Monitoring Programme supported by Cobus Botha the Bulk Grazing Trial in conjunction with Priscilla Dent; as well as the Protective Netting Trial over Avocados.

SASRI (Slindile Nqayi) continues their trial on Sugarcane Nematode Treatments & Varieties, while Farmers Agricare in conjunction with Arysta & Rolfe Chemicals, have undertaken an observational trial on the control of Phytophthora cinnamomi in Avocado.

The commendable collaborative efforts of the team from the University of Tübingen, Germany, under leadership of Gregor-Donatus Bader & Manuel Will are presently on site to continue the dig on the Holley Shelter. This excavation involves collaboration with 4 European (Aurore Val (France), Maria Deneys (Belgium), Sarah Rhodes (Portugal))) and four South African Universities (Trevor Hill (UKZN), Marlieze Lombard (University of Johannesburg) staff from the University of the Free State and Jeremy Hollman (University of Witwatersrand). They have also invited students from several African Universities to assist and gain field experience (Namibia, Eswatini, Botswana, Tanzania & South Africa). Information is shared among many institutions and includes the KZN Natural History Museum (Gavin Whitelaw), the Archaeological Society of KZN and members of the public are being exposed to the fascination of palaeontology and the mysteries it can reveal.

 

 

Final reports and publications from the Small Mammal and Reptile Surveys (Cameron Cormac & Colleen Downs of UKZN), Jesse Delia of the American Museum of Natural History, on Frog Mimicry; the Pollination of the Natal Crocus Apodolirion buchananii by Ian Kiepiel & Steve Johnson of the Centre for Functional Biodiversity, UKZN are all eagerly anticipated.

Public access to the Reiche, Modi, Mottram & Kinvig Nature Trails continues to attract more than 700 visitors per annum. Use of the FHE hospitality offerings continue to grow. As a result, more accommodation options have been added to the mix and plans for some rustic and glamping sites on the property are being considered. The recently introduced horse safaris hosted by Tess Miles have morphed into a commercial success with monthly trail rides scheduled.

 

The 7 editions of the Taeuber Management Trust and Fountainhill Estate calendars, that feature the FHE story pictorially, provide a graphic representation of the development over this period and are much sought after. Gradually the property and efforts of its family of staff and directors is, realising the ambitious vision of its founding family. This metamorphosis is only possible through the collaborative and supportive contributions of our many partners. We salute and thank you all for your efforts!

 

 

Yours in Conservation & Agriculture,

Ed Gevers

Executive Director: FHE