Critically endangered Renosterveld

Fertile soil makes Renosterveld attractive to crop and livestock farmers, and this is why it was some of the first land to be exploited by farmers. Today only 10% of the original extent still exists, writes Cameron McMaster.
Issue date : 03 October 2008

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Renosterveld occurs on the fertile shale and granite-based clay soils in the lowland areas of the Western Cape, extending to some extent into the extreme western part of the Eastern Cape. While is part of the Fynbos biome it’s very distinct from Fynbos, which is found mainly on the acidic, sandy soils of low nutritional value on sand plains and mountains. In plant life Renosterveld lacks the three distinct Fynbos elements of proteas, ericas (heather) and restios (reeds). As nearly 90% of the original extent of the has been transformed by agriculture, it’s now a critically endangered veld type unique to South Africa.

The little that remains occurs primarily on private ground. The unpalatable renosterbos, Elytropappus rhinocerotis, is the dominant shrub and although a key species, it does tend to dominate in the absence of periodic fire and in situations of overgrazing. How did get its name? About 300 years ago black rhino and other large mammals occurred in the region. Some assume that’s why, while others contend it’s because the dull, grey colour of the renosterbos looks like the skin of a rhino. Why is it so special? It’s one of the richest ecosystems in the world. However, the Renosterveld we see today is very different from what it was 300 years ago. Before the advent of large-scale commercial agriculture the supported large numbers of big game including black rhino, eland and the now-extinct bluebuck. It had a larger grass component and diversity of shrubs and bulbs.

Sadly the replacement of large animals with small, selective stock like sheep, combined with years of overgrazing and too-seldom or too-frequent burning has caused this special veld to become severely degraded. T oday it’s represented by small fragments in road reserves and in between fields, in places either too steep or too rocky to plough. Areas that are well managed retain the characteristics of real Renosterveld and it’s clear the habitat supports a diversity of botanical gems, incomparable to any other system in the world. The very high number of bulbous species found in this veld type is unequalled and many are endemic. Because of habitat loss, many of the plants are rare or highly vulnerable.

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Even within Renosterveld the veld varies, depending on the soil type and rainfall pattern, supporting different groups of plants. Detailed information about the extent and distribution of the different types of Renosterveld can be found in the most comprehensive and useful recent publication of the SA National Biodiversity Institute The Vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland edited by Mucina and Rutherford. Of the endemics some species are so specialised they are only found in very unique and localised micro-habitats in a handful of localities such as the silcrete koppies in certain regions. Many of these species are now on the Red Data list. As farmers and landowners we are often responsible for fragile systems that need to be carefully managed and protected if future generations are to enjoy their hidden treasures.

Preserving Renosterveld
Researchers and farmers are doing surveys to determine where the rare species still occur and the best ways to manage these relict fragments. The more we learn the better we will be able to understand the conservation dynamics and the better the chances are the little that remains will be managed. By creating reserves and implementing environmentally friendly farming practices you would preserve that which you love – and you can only love that which you know. To be informed is the key to the conservation as knowledge creates a better understanding of the ecology of your veld and the interdependence of all species. Contact Cameron McMaster at [email protected]. |fw