Hilton farm wins NCT Tree Farmer of the Year award

August 31, 2010

Hilton College, one of South Africa's leading private schools, is best known for its academic excellence, holistic education, and the beauty of its campus. But few people are aware that the Hilton College estate, situated on the hills above Pietermaritzburg, also includes a farm with 340 ha of commercial forestry. This forestry operation has just won the prestigious NCT Tree Farmer of the Year award for 2010.

Hilton farm team Hilton assitant farm manager
The Hilton forestry team.

Assistant farm manager Senzo Mwelase consults the forestry management board.


 The Award is presented annually by NCT to recognise members who display excellence in sustainable forestry practice, and this year Hilton won the award in the commercial farm category.

"The Hiltonian Society is an exceptional example of how forestry can be integrated with other land use activities to enhance the overall productivity and effectiveness of an enterprise," reads the NCT citation.

Hilton College is one of the oldest private schools in the country. It was founded by Gould Arthur Lucas and William Orde Newnham in 1872 on the hills above Pietermaritzburg, overlooking the scenic Umgeni valley.

The school and estate is now owned and operated by The Hiltonian Society, a Section 21 company not for gain. The forestry operation is managed by Saxon Solomon, a Hilton old boy and graduate of the Cedara Agricultural College.

The estate covers 1 762 ha, of which 345 is planted to wattle. Other land uses are as follows:

  • 150 ha – annual cropping
  • 30 ha – kikuyu pastures
  • 620 ha – natural grazing interspersed with indigenous bush
  • 550 ha – conservation
  • 67 ha – for infrastructure, including the school.

The forestry is an extremely well-run operation by Sax and his team, with technical input, assistance and advice from NCT, of which The Hiltonian Society is a founder member.

The wattle was originally planted on the farm to provide the school with fuel for heating and for the hot water boilers, as there was no electricity in those days. Some eucalyptus was introduced at a later stage, but this has now been phased out in favour of wattle.

The increase in timber and bark yields recorded over the past decade provide an indicator of the ever-improving productivity of the plantation. In 1997, the wattle compartments were yielding 85 tons timber and 15 tons bark per hectare at 10 years of age. Today, the farm is averaging 125 tons timber and 25 tons bark per hectare.

A successful forestry operation starts with good planning, and the team has developed a simple but highly effective peg-board system that shows exactly what annual operations have to be done in each compartment, from land prep to planting, weeding, thinning, pruning and harvesting.

The planning board is displayed prominently in the forestry office alongside detailed estate maps and information posters on fire response protocols, common pests and diseases affecting commercial plantations and unwanted alien plant species.

"The beauty of this system is that it is not affected by computer viruses or power outages, and if somebody had to walk in here and take over my job tomorrow, he would know exactly what to do in regard to the practical management of the plantation, by just glancing at this board," said Sax.

Some 30% of the land was planted to gum, but this has now all been converted to wattle. All silviculture work is done in-house by the Hilton team, using labour drawn from local households. The harvesting is done by a contractor, I.R. Voigts (Pty) Ltd. It's a stump to mill operation, with the timber going to NCT Durban Woodchips and the bark going to the UCL factory in Dalton. IR Voigts and The Society enjoy an excellent working relationship, and weekly management meetings are held throughout the harvesting season.

When SA Forestry magazine visited the plantation, it soon became obvious why NCT regards the Hilton operation so highly.

Tree lines are weeded intensively by hand, and the inter-rows with chemical sprays. This is applied carefully using a wind-box so there is no drift onto the growing trees. Many compartments still have old gum stumps which makes use of a wind-box difficult, so these sites are hand-hoed.

They plant improved seedlings supplied by Top Crop nursery, and fertilise with super phosphate on the sites with dolerite soils, and super phosphate and potassium on the shallower sandstone soils.

Thinnings are done meticulously, and on the marginal sites, the number of trees is reduced to the target stocking earlier than usual to give the remaining trees space to grow.

All riparian areas have been taken out of production and are immaculately maintained and cleared regularly of alien trees and plants, and the indigenous woody vegetation is coming back on its own.

The conservation management on the estate is described by NCT as "outstanding", and is a joint effort between the forestry and conservation staff, and the school pupils.

Numerous small parcels of land within the plantation area have been cleared of aliens and planted to indigenous vegetation to attract birds and wildlife and encourage biodiversity.

The estate incorporates a nature reserve and a wildlife centre, run by the dedicated conservation department with pupil involvement. Conservation and the environment is an important part of the school curriculum, and so there are many opportunities for pupils to get involved in outdoor activities which contribute to conservation management.

The forestry team is also responsible for managing an area of threatened Natal Mist-belt Grassland. This area is divided into five camps which are grazed on a 'one week in, three weeks out' basis, and one camp a year is rested for a 12-month period.

Sax has also paid a lot of attention to the plantation roads, and it is clear that he is a big believer in drainage. The adage that 'your roads are only as good as your drainage' has been put into practice and berms and drainage furrows have been built at regular intervals. It almost looks like overkill, but Sax assures me that it makes a big difference to road conditions and reduces the cost of road maintenance in the long run. Only the one road to and from the timber depot at the centre of the plantation has been hardened.

"We have converted the remaining gum compartments to wattle on the advice of NCT. There are some marginal sites bordering the thornveld which are better suited to wattle, so for us wattle is a more profitable crop – and it's fire resistant," said Sax. "The 2007 wildfires that came up from the valley didn't touch our wattle."

However, Sax and his team still take fire prevention measures seriously, are active members of the Lions River FPA, and selectively insure young compartments (up to four years) and the compartments that are about to be felled.

On the social front, The Hiltonian Society has initiated an innovative programme to provide alternative housing closer to amenities, transport nodes and economic opportunities for the people living on the estate. Some families have been living there since the school was first established more than 100 years ago and the number has grown significantly over the years.

The Society acquired land in nearby Howick and developed fully serviced, modern housing units in partnership with government and the local municipality. The families were given the option to move or to stay on the Hilton estate, and to date the majority have opted to re-locate.

Phase one of the project has been implemented and 42 families have moved into their new houses already. Phase two, which will see the relocation of another 37 families, is about to begin.

Transport to and from work is provided for those relocated people who are employed on the farm and at the College.

Saxon was naturally thrilled with the NCT award, as were his farm staff, ably led by Senzo Mwelase. But he was adamant that it was a team effort, and he mentioned specifically Jeremy Dixon, Craig Norris and Patrick Kime of NCT who have provided him with lots of advice and support over the years, as well as the management team of the farm's harvesting contractors. He also paid tribute to his colleagues at Hilton, Estate General Manager Rowan Welsford, Dave White and his conservation team, as well as Iain Mcmillan's development department responsible for the housing relocation programme.

"This award wouldn't have been possible without the teamwork which is a hallmark of Hilton College, and the contribution by previous farm managers, and in particular, John Bennie who worked here for over 40 years with extraordinary commitment," concluded Saxon.

Published in August 2010

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