Protecting grasslands

What’s left of our pristine grasslands is under threat, now more than ever. Drastic steps need to be taken to protect them, writes Cameron McMaster.
Issue date : 06 June 2008

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The small areas of Montane grassland still preserved in the Amathole region of the Eastern Cape are vestigial relicts of a unique ecosystem under severe threat. The flora and vegetation there is predominantly Afromontane. Very extensive afforestation in the last century, coupled with severe overgrazing by domestic livestock in the commercial farming and former tribal areas of the Amathole Mountains, has led to the destruction of all but a fraction of original montane grassland. The few areas that are still pristine are those that fell within the state forest reserves of the former Department of Forestry, which protected them from grazing animals and which are now in dire need of conservation.

Conservation of montane grassland It’s vital that the remaining grassland is preserved for three very important reasons. F irstly, the mountains act as a sponge to absorb summer rainfall and mist, and then release water gradually into the streams and rivers that have their source there. The vast plantations of exotic trees and constantly spreading alien invaders have depleted the water retention capacity of the mountains. It’s essential for the wellbeing of the economy that communities below this water resource be maintained at an optimum level.

Reservoirs such as Wriggleswade, Gubu and the Kat River dams, which supply water to the rural and urban populations, industry and agriculture, are dependant on this resource. Grassland in good condition is the most efficient vegetation type for a permanent, natural water supply. importance of this water source was highlighted in recent reports by scientists based at the University of Cape Town. In a report titled, Impacts of climate change on plant diversity, they predict that by the year 2050, global warming will have reduced rainfall in the southern and Eastern Cape by 25%. Unless our mountain catchment areas are preserved, the consequences will be dire.

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Secondly, the mountains are the last remaining repository of biodiversity in the Eastern Cape. Biodiversity has largely been destroyed in areas that have been utilised for forestry and farming. We identified 462 species of flowering herbs and geophytes during a recent survey, excluding trees and grasses.

Many species are already extremely rare and under threat of extinction. In this context, these areas are an important source of traditional medicinal plants. Mount Thomas, according to local folklore, has almost the status of a shrine. Legend has it that it was the domain of healers who used to ascend its slopes to gather muti to strengthen and protect tribal warriors. Local folk sometimes refer to the mountain as “Intabeni ugqirha” – Mountain of Healers.

Thirdly, the mountains are already increasingly important as a tourist attraction. tourism industry has a vast potential for job and wealth creation in the Eastern Cape. This will, however, only be realised if the mountains are preserved in beautiful condition. Tourists will not be attracted to degraded and neglected areas.

Threats to montane grassland he major threats to grassland are overgrazing by domestic livestock and encroachment of alien plant invaders of which the Australian species, wattle blackwood and eucalyptus are the most pernicious. Volunteer pines are also very invasive in areas adjacent to plantations. The former is a short-term threat for which solutions can be found.

The latter is a long-term threat which, if not addressed in a systematic and ongoing programme, can eventually end in the total and permanent replacement of natural vegetation. Sadly, large areas of the mountain grassland and many streams are already irreversibly infested with aliens. Overgrazing by domestic livestock only became a problem after 1994 and the damage is not yet irreparable.

On private farmland and in former tribal areas, which have been subjected to grazing by domestic animals over a long period, many species have disappeared altogether. The areas under discussion, which were formerly preserved within state forest reserves, still have the full spectrum of biodiversity largely intact. However, these areas are now under threat by thousands of cattle belonging to residents of the former Ciskei homeland. Continued grazing, which leads to constant defoliation and inhibits seed production, will certainly result in the demise of many sensitive species. Conservation strategy Of direct economic importance, is the negative affect continuous denudation has had on water absorption and the retention capacity of grasslands.

Continuous overgrazing on some mountain slopes results in the degradation of grassland, trampling and erosion. Most slopes are too steep to sustain cattle grazing and are very prone to erosion. Unless a healthy grass sward is maintained, the value of the mountains as a vital water resource will be severely impaired. The areas most severely affected are the slopes of Mount Kubusie, Mount Thomas, the Hogsback area and the slopes above the Keiskamma and the Kat River basins.

The long-term economic value of the mountains as a water resource, a tourist attraction and a repository of biodiversity, far outweighs the short-term economic benefit derived by a small number of individuals from their cattle. Other provinces and countries protect their mountain catchment areas so that they can be utilised exclusively as national parks, for the protection of flora and fauna, for recreation and primarily as water resources. In this way, the benefits will ultimately be for the community as a whole. Examples in South Africa are the KZN Drakensberg and the mountains of the Western Cape.

It’s gratifying that a major effort is being made to arrest and control the spread of aliens in the area under the supervision of the Amathole forestry company’s Kubusie plantation near Stutterheim. As far as the cattle problem is concerned the prognosis is less encouraging. Despite exhaustive attempts to address the problem, little progress has been made. It’s a sensitive political issue as the cattle owners have a powerful lobby in local and provincial political circles. Attempts in the past to remove the cattle have led to retaliation – sometimes resulting even in arson – a situation the forestry company can ill afford.

A handful of cattle owners who are illegally utilising this resource are benefiting at the expense of the whole population of the area who will be dependent on this resource for centuries to come. Since the privatisation of SAFCOL and the leasing by the state of the plantations to the Amathole Forestry Company, the management of the grassland above the forests has become its responsibility. It’s entitled to the full and exclusive use of the land in return for the rent it pays, placing the onus to have the cattle removed squarely on the shoulders of the Eastern Cape government and in particular on the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. However, in practice, this has not happened and cattle continue to degrade this valuable water catchment area.

The best that can be done at present is to confine the cattle to the pine plantations, which is being done with the help of forest guards. This is only partly effective and a more permanent solution is necessary. It’s imperative that the responsible authorities in the Eastern Cape acknowledge the importance of this priceless, vulnerable and irreplaceable natural heritage and take steps to preserve and maintain it for the benefit of not only the present generation, but for all those in the future who will depend on it. – Cameron McMaster ([email protected]) |fw