Road reserves & breaking the law

The mismanagement of road reserves is a blot on our biodiversity conservation initiatives, writes Cameron McMaster.
Issue date : 23 January 2009

- Advertisement -

The mismanagement of road reserves is a blot on our biodiversity conservation initiatives, writes Cameron McMaster.

up to now Road and railway reserves have been the repository of many of our rare and most endangered wild plants.  Due to decades of continuous grazing of the palatable species wildflowers have all but disappeared in much of the adjacent farmland. Even less palatable species have declined due to habitat degradation and declining regeneration of populations from seed. However, as roadside reserves are generally fenced and free of livestock, most of their biodiversity has been preserved.

Biodiversity under threat
Within these protected areas most species remain intact and can flower and reproduce. These plants provide annual crops of seed, essential to sustaining populations within the reserves and on the adjacent farmland. However, there’s been an alarming change in the management of national road reserves in recent years. Previously, only an appropriate strip of 1m to 2m on either side of the tarmac was mowed to keep the road verge clear.

Now, however, the entire area within road reserves, right up to the fences on either side, is systematically and regularly closely mowed along many of our highways and provincial roads. This is particularly evident along some roadsides in the Eastern Cape along the N9 and N6 highways, and it’s also the case in other provinces.
Woody shrubs and trees within road reserves have been felled and their stumps poisoned. While this may be understandable where trees and bush obscure vision or may hide kudu and other animals that might be a danger to motorists, clearing bush and aloe, even on road verges high above cuttings, seems unnecessary destruction of beautiful roadside vegetation.

- Advertisement -

It’s difficult to understand the rationale behind the mowing of grassland and short Karoo shrub right up to fences. It has been reported in the Northern Cape that not only are road reserves mowed, but rare succulent vegetation is being systematically, mechanically destroyed and cleared, leaving road verges bare and vulnerable to wind erosion

Who’s counting the cost?
The consequences will be extremely dire. Some of our rarest plants survive only in these areas. If mowed regularly they won’t flower and produce seed and will soon be exterminated. This means rare plants will entirely lose the ability to sustain and expand their populations. Far more seriously, the lack of flowers on road reserves will spell the demise of pollinators which could have serious consequences for entire ecosystems of the affected regions. It also denies motorists the pleasure of enjoying and appreciating roadside flora. For most folk, journeys along these highways are probably the only opportunity they have to see and admire wildflowers.

Flouting the law
Many of the plants being destroyed in this way are listed as Red-Data species highly protected by our Nature Conservation Ordinances. If anyone were to pick or dig out roadside flowers they’d be committing a serious crime and be liable for prosecution with severe penalties. Yet road maintenance crews commit wanton destruction with impunity. One wonders if any environmental impact assessments were carried out along roadsides in sensitive areas before mowing.

Devastation seen first-hand
On a recent trip on the N9 I was shocked to observe this destruction between the Biervlei Dam and Aberdeen. The entire road verge from fence to fence had been cut to the ground, with the total destruction of all plants taller than 10cm. A few of the dwarf aloes, although severely damaged, were bravely attempting to flower. The aloe species involved were Aloe variegata, Aloe claviflora and Aloe longistyla, all protected species, the latter two being rare and vulnerable.

Another rare plant now surviving almost exclusively on road reserves along this stretch is the big bulb with fan-shaped foliage, Boophone disticha. It will surely be destroyed by constant defoliation and the inability to flower and set seed. There must be hundreds of less conspicuous species that will be just as severely affected.
The Karoo veld within this reserve is nowhere taller than 15cm, and by no stretch of the imagination can it be a hazard to motorists. There is also no fire hazard in this area. It’s inexplicable that it’s deemed necessary to mow the entire road reserve when narrow strips used to suffice. The cost to the road authority and taxpayers and the waste of diesel and expensive equipment are additional considerations.

Address the problem
It is imperative that the provincial nature conservation authority investigate this malpractice and put a stop to it. If necessary, the perpetrators should be brought to book and punished for breaking the law. As concerned citizens we can’t sit back and accept this overkill of flora. Organisations such as the Botanical Society and the South African National Biodiversity Institute must take action before irreversible damage is done to our road reserves. Contact Cameron McMaster at [email protected].     |fw