Forestry leads the way in grasslands conservation

February 28, 2011

Forestry, often criticised in the media for falling short in its commitment to the environment, is leading the way in recognising and conserving areas of high biodiversity value. Working with partners in conservation such as the SANBI Grasslands Programme, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and the provincial environment departments, landowners are seeking to get valuable parcels of unplanted land declared protected areas under long term conservation management agreements. With three sites on forestry estates already declared as formal nature reserves, and another 33 areas identified for some form of formal protection for conservation, the initiative is gaining momentum, and the forestry sector is showing the way forward for other land users in South Africa.

Grassland scenic view in South Africa

A beautiful grassland on Merensky's Weza estate. Merensky plans to declare the estate as a 'protected environment' to strengthen the conservation management of the area.


Forbs found in health grasslands

Forbs found in healthy grasslands on forestry estates ...

Grasslands Programme representatives Grasslands inspection at Weza Estate

Paul Simpson (left) and Steve Germishuizen of the Grasslands Programme inspect a grassland on Forestside.

From left: Forester Kuno Venter, silivculture forester Bheki Mbele, Steve Germishuizen and Jaco Botha checking a ‘cutout’ on the Weza estate.


Forbs found grasslands in South Africa

Some more forbs found in grasslands on forestry estates.

About Grasslands in South Africa

The grasslands biome covers 29% of South Africa and occurs in seven provinces (Gauteng, Limpopo, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and North West). Grasslands are very old, complex systems that evolved slowly over millions of years. The species diversity is second only to the fynbos biome found in the Cape. Of the 72 vegetation types in the biome, one is listed as critically endangered, 14 are endangered and 24 are classified as vulnerable.

The term 'grassland' is misleading, because only one in every six plant species out of the 3 780 found in the biome are grasses. The others include flowering plants such as arum lilies, orchids, red-hot pokers, aloes, watsonias and gladioli. They support many habitats and ecosystems, including rivers and wetlands.

Grasslands are one of the most threatened biomes in South Africa. They are the economic heartland that is home to the majority of South Africans, and are under huge development pressure from agriculture, industry, and growing urban and peri-urban settlements. An estimated 30% of the biome is irreversibly transformed, and only 1.9% is formally conserved. As a result, the life-sustaining biodiversity and ecosystem services (such as water production and prevention of soil erosion) of the grasslands are being eroded.

The grasslands biome has been identified by government as one of the priorities for conservation action, hence the launch of the Grasslands Programme. This 20-year programme is administered by SANBI and has received five years of initial funding by the United Nations Development Programme's Global Environment Facility.

The Grasslands Programme aims to sustain and secure the biodiversity and ecosystem services of South Africa's grasslands biome, while at the same time strengthening the economy and contributing to social development. A cornerstone of its strategy is to acknowledge the existence of production sectors as important stewards of the grassland biome, and to 'negotiate trade-offs between production and conservation needs through market mechanisms, incentives and conservation stewardship'. This is to be implemented through the creation of 'partnerships'.

Forestry a key partner in grasslands conservation

The forestry industry is a key role player and partner in the grasslands conservation initiative, as most of the plantation estates fall within the grasslands biome of Mpumalanga, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Forestry constitutes 18% of commercially cropped/planted land within the grasslands biome, making it the second largest commercial land use within the biome after maize.

There are a number of advantageous factors which place forestry in an ideal position to contribute to the conservation of the grasslands biome:

  • The forestry sector is well-organised under Forestry South Africa with 2 500 members comprising small, medium and large growers.The organised forestry sector is environmentally aware and participates voluntarily in the certification system operated by FSC.
  • Forestry companies, and in particular, large growers own large tracts of land that are currently unplanted to trees and are likely to remain so.
  • Some of this unplanted land overlaps with biodiversity priority areas and the companies have shown an interest in formalising the protected area status of this land.
  • Forestry makes an important contribution to the national economy and is seen as an important development sector, and is in a unique position to play a leadership role in conservation initiatives.Many of these grasslands are in excellent condition due to good management.

Thus it's no surprise that the forestry industry is already breaking new ground in terms of grassland biodiversity stewardship. Three grassland sites on forestry estates have already been declared formally as Nature Reserves:

Mt Gilboa Nature Reserve in the Karkloof area is situated on a Mondi Shanduka Newsprint forestry estate. Mbona Private Nature Reserve, covering 678 ha, is in the Karkloof area and is privately owned. Gelijkwater Mistbelt Nature Reserve near Babanango is situated on a Mondi forestry estate.According to Steve Germishuizen, co-ordinator of the Grasslands Programme's Forestry Sector, there are another 33 sites on forestry estates covering some 40 000 hectares, that have been earmarked for formal conservation recognition, either as nature reserves or as a 'protected environment'.

Many of these sites are linked to existing nature reserves or high value ecosystems like wetlands and natural forests, thus they have the potential to create much larger areas under conservation management, with a significant impact at the landscape level.

Following forestry's lead, neighbouring land owners are also starting to come on board, so the whole initiative is gaining momentum, says Steve.

Most of the 33 identified sites are in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, with one in the Hogsback area of Eastern Cape. All the large corporate growers are participating in the initiative, as well as private commercial tree farmers.

A key partner in KwaZulu-Natal is the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Stewardship Programme, spearheaded by programme facilitator Bheka Memela. Mpumalanga Parks and Tourism Authority is the implementing agency in that province.

The sites of high biodiversity value have been identified by the SANBI Grasslands Programme and the forestry companies. These have been screened by the provincial conservation agencies' ecologists. What sets these sites apart is that they are sufficiently pristine that the biodiversity of the grasslands is intact, or the disturbance is minimal and they can be rehabilitated with careful management.

"It was a surprise to us to discover that many of the most diverse and intact grasslands are situated on forestry estates," said Steve. "In many cases, this can be put down to the control or exclusion of cattle and generally sound management.

"Cattle have a huge impact on grassland biodiversity, and most grasslands are over-grazed to the extent that they have passed the tipping point beyond which full rehabilitation may not be cost-effective or even possible. "

Steve explains that the moist sourveld grasslands did not evolve to support large numbers of bulk grazers, like cattle or eland. For example, the recommended stocking rate of eland in the Drakensberg is around 1 LAU (large animal unit) per 56 hectares. Accepted stocking levels in the beef industry in these areas are around 1 LAU per 3-4 hectares. The result is that most of the commercial animal production areas have been severely degraded from a biodiversity perspective.

Hence, the Grasslands Programme team is concentrating its efforts on those sites that still have some biodiversity intact, where long-term conservation management can have the biggest impact.

The Grasslands Programme team's goal is to get all 33 pilot sites declared formally either as 'nature reserves' or as 'protected environments' under the Protected Areas Act. This arrangement is secured in terms of an agreement between the MEC of the provincial environment department and the landowner. The legislated agreement pertaining to a nature reserve is for a minimum period of 99 years, whereas the protected environment agreement is for a minimum of 30 years.

In terms of these agreements, the landowners must manage the sites according to a management plan which will be devised by the landowners and the conservation agencies like Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife with support from the SANBI Grasslands Programme. The conservation agencies will provide additional assistance and advice to the site managers in terms of prescribing burning regimes, monitoring of plant and animal species etc.

As part of a raft of support services to the forestry sector, the Grasslands Programme team has developed a versatile conservation tool which can be used to assess a forestry estate or landholding, identify areas that are most important for conservation, compile appropriate management plans, assist with budgeting and prepare submissions for formal conservation status applications with relevant authorities.

The benefits of having an unplanted portion of a commercial forestry estate declared a formal conservation area include the following:

  • The landowner can access management assistance and advice from conservation authorities.
  • It provides additional legislative support to protect the property against illegal activities such as poaching and illegal grazing.
  • It supports the development of eco-tourism ventures.
  • Supports the FSC certification objectives of forestry companies.
  • There are legislated income tax benefits. In the case of a declared nature reserve, the purchase costs of the land can be written off over 10 years. For Nature Reserves and Protected Environments, management costs of open areas can be deducted as operational costs.
  • Nature Reserves are exempt from paying municipal rates.
  • It serves to protect the land against competing land uses e.g. mining.
  • It creates a good image for your company or brand in the eyes of the public, the authorities and/or the market.
  • It contributes to the conservation of healthy ecosystems which prevents soil erosion and improves water retention and slow release, which benefits the plantation trees growing below the catchment, and downstream land users.

Threat of mining

A recent application by a mining group for prospecting rights on the slopes of the Ingeli mountains in the Harding magisterial district serves to highlight the importance of securing some form of protection for high conservation sites.

The application was lodged in 2010 for prospecting rights across a number of forestry estates situated on the flanks of the Ingeli mountains, including DAFF plantations leased by Singisi Forest Products, (part of the Merensky group) and private commercial farmers.

The mineral that occurs in the area is bauxite, which is used in the aluminium smelting process.

The area covered by the prospecting application, which includes the Ingeli mountain and Weza State Forest, is regarded as very important from a biodiversity conservation perspective. It includes three vegetation types:

  • Drakensberg Foothill Moist Grassland, classified as 'Vulnerable'; Midlands Mistbelt Grassland, classified as 'Critically Endangered'; and
  • Eastern Mistbelt Forest, classified as 'Near Threatened'.

The area falls within the Ngeli-Ntsikeni threatened plant regional hotspot, and the Weza State Forest is one of the largest and most accessible tracts of Afromontane forest in KwaZulu-Natal, supporting a number of rare and threatened species.

In addition, the Ingele Mountain is an important catchment for the Umtamvuna River, which is the primary supply of water for the area between the Ingele Mountain and the coastal towns such as Port Shepstone.

The prospecting application is being opposed on the grounds that it threatens an area of high ecological value, that it did not follow due process, and that in any event the bauxite deposits and transport infrastructure are not sufficient to support an economically viable mining operation.

The grassland conservation initiative in the Harding area has assumed a greater significance and urgency in the light of the prospecting application.


Brian Armour owns a number of forestry farms in the Harding area, including Forestside, which he purchased in 1986 for conservation purposes. Brian is a previous NCT commercial tree farmer of the year, and growing trees and conservation is in his blood.

Forestside is situated at the headwaters of the Umtamvuna River, includes very well preserved grasslands, natural forest, wetlands and accompanying veld-type ecotones. It borders with DAFF, Singisi's Weza plantations and communal land of the old Transkei.

Brian, who also owns the well-known Ingeli Forest Lodge on the Harding/Kokstad road, has applied to declare the farm as a Nature Reserve under the Protected Areas Act.

He says the area is under threat from uncontrolled burning from neighbours which interferes with the mosaic burning regime he uses. Hot fires have damaged the forest margins and have the potential to cause serious damage if not controlled. Poaching and harvesting of medicinal plants has also had an impact, he says.

"Cattle is a major problem as they have a big impact on the grasslands and cause erosion, that's why we're so keen to keep them out," said Brian.

"I am a conservationist at heart and I bought Forestside for its conservation value. It increases our unplanted conservation area for the purposes of our FSC certification," said Brian.

Brian owns and operates 1 400 ha of commercial forestry in the area, planted mainly to eucalyptus and pine with small patches of wattle strategically placed to reduce the threat of fires. The eucalyptus compartments used mainly for transmission poles are managed under a 10-year rotation. He is also rehabilitating the old Glen Ive sawmill to process the pine timber.

Weza Estate

The Weza plantation on the slopes of the Ingeli Mountain in the Harding district is one of the most beautiful forestry estates in South Africa. It is a State plantation operated by Merensky by way of a long term lease, and supplies timber to the Weza sawmill and a number of smaller customers in the area.

Within the plantation landscape, fingers of unplanted areas or "cutouts" extend from the top of Ingeli Mountain down to the grasslands and wetlands below. It includes some pristine grassland areas that rate among the best examples ever assessed by the EKZN-Wildlife ecological team.

"We are privileged to be the custodians of these relatively pristine areas on the estate, including grasslands, natural forest patches and wetlands," said Merensky's forestry manager, Marius Jonker. He told SA Forestry magazine that historically there has always been a very close link between conservation and production at Weza, and generations of foresters have laid a good foundation for the current team to work off. Thus a lot of work has been done in the open areas, including work done in partnership with the Working on Water and Working on Wetlands programmes, and the results are clearly visible on the ground.

Marius said that they are in the process of applying to have the Weza Estate declared a Protected Environment under the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act. While the Protected Environment does not afford as high a level of protection as a Nature Reserve, this arrangement allows the entire property, including the open area network, to be protected.

Marius said that their ultimate intention is to create an inter-linked protected area over the total Weza landscape that will include Weza Plantation, the Ingeli and Mpetyeni indigenous forests and portions of the Ingeli mountain (currently managed by DAFF), as well as Forestside (privately owned by Brian Armour).

"The landscapes managed by the various stakeholders are interlinked and there is enough synergy between us to pull it all together into a protected conservation area that will have a positive outcome for the total area," said Marius.

For example the long term plan is to create a continuous natural link between the Ingeli indigenous forest and the mountain grassland. There are a number of pine compartments in the way, but they are only licenced for one rotation and will be excised after clearfell and rehabilitated to natural grasslands.

He believes that such an agreement will also stand Merensky in good stead in terms of their long term land agreement with DAFF.

Marius said that there are however serious challenges that could affect these areas from other land use interests, for example mining and cattle invasion from neighbouring cattle farmers.

A number of applications to prospect for minerals in the area have been lodged, and Merensky has got involved in the stakeholder consultations to ensure that the impacts on the forestry operations and the environment are minimised.

Marius maintains that one of the biggest threats to the grasslands is cattle. "This is a complex problem and various avenues are being followed to address it," he said.

Apparently cattle are being driven to Weza from as far afield as Mt Ayliff, 100 kms away, because of the grazing pressure there. Weza is also situated on the livestock rustling route to Lesotho.

He said Merensky spends some R3 million a year trying to keep cattle out of Weza and Singisi. "We're supporting the legal structures to try and get some law and order back into cattle farming," said Marius.

Mt Gilboa Nature Reserve

The Mt Gilboa Nature Reserve, situated in Mondi Shanduka Newsprint's Gilboa estate in Karkloof, was officially proclaimed under the National Environment Management Protected Areas Act in mid-2010 (see SA Forestry magazine October 2010 issue).

This was the first nature reserve to be declared on forestry land under the biodiversity stewardship programme.

Mt Gilboa is situated at the headland of three important river systems, and includes key wetlands and grasslands. Its linkage with the existing Karkloof Nature Reserve makes it a valuable addition to conservation in KwaZulu-Natal.

Once again, partnerships between the landowner and conservation stakeholders, including the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Stewardship Programme, WESSA, the KZN Conservancy Association and the Grasslands Programme, were key in the protection of Mt Gilboa.

Clairmont Mountain Nature Reserve

Clairmont near Bulwer in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains is one of 10 sites identified by Sappi as areas of high ecological value that have been earmarked for formal protection, either as nature reserves or protected environments. Eight of those sites are on Sappi land in Mpumalanga, and two in KwaZulu-Natal.

The 1 000 ha Clairmont Mountain Nature Reserve is significant from a conservation point of view primarily because it connects two existing nature reserves. It also includes some large and relatively pristine portions of grassland that are important in terms of habitat connectivity.

The Clairmont Nature Reserve project is a partnership between SAPPI and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, and is a useful model for demonstrating the potential for mainstreaming biodiversity conservation within a production sector. It will also serve as a catalyst for other commercial farmers in the area to get on board and contribute to provincial conservation goals.

The top part of Bulwer Mountain in Clairmont has been declared a Site of Conservation Significance. It is situated at the headwaters of one of the tributaries of the uMkomazi River and provides water security to the river system.

A field visit by KZN Wildlife scientific staff indicated that the grassland is in good condition (Biodiversity Index score of three), there is low fragmentation within the area and there is good potential to rehabilitate degraded areas. It was also determined that it will make a meaningful contribution to the protection of the vulnerable Drakensberg Foothill Moist Grassland and near threatened Eastern Mistbelt Forest.

The benefits of including Clairmont Mountain into the Biodiversity Stewardships Programme as a nature reserve include the following:

  • It's contribution to the achievement of provincial and national conservation targets. Protection of endangered, rare and endemic species.
  • It becomes an additional habitat adjacent to two existing nature reserves already under conservation.
  • It contributes to the water security of the quaternary catchment that drains into the uMkomazi River.
  • Provides SAPPI with an opportunity to formalise the protection of one of its prime conservation assets in line with the company's environmental policies.

One of the challenges faced in the management of conservation areas situated within production units such as forestry is that compromises have to be made in instances where conservation objectives clash with production objectives.

One of these is in fire protection. Regular annual burns – as they are applied in forestry estates – can impact negatively on the biodiversity of grasslands and other ecosystems. The management plan for Clairmont has adopted a zoning system in which portions of the property will be burnt annually before the fire season to meet legal and protection requirements, while the remainder of the land will be exposed to a fire regime that aims to meet the biodiversity-related objectives.

Thus, non-fire protection areas will be burnt with as much variety as possible regarding the season, time of day, conditions of burn and so on, so as to mimic the natural systems as closely as possible.

Sappi's divisional environmental manager, Dave Everard, says that the company is also pursuing the possibility of getting formal conservation protection for some of the wetlands on their forestry estates. "We have rehabilitated some wetlands, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, and we're now looking at getting some sort of conservation recognition for these sites as well," said Dave.

Published in February 2011

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