Turning the conservation tide on the Agulhas Plain

The Nuwejaars Wetland Special Management Area (SMA) is an innovative, farmer-driven solution to balancing commercial farming with conservation. Denene Erasmus visited farmers in the SMA to learn more about this groundbreaking initiative.

Turning the conservation tide on the Agulhas Plain
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The Nuwejaars Wetland Ecosystem that covers a large part of the Agulhas Plain at the southernmost tip of Africa is one the largest remaining habitats of lowland fynbos. It is also one of the very few places where it is possible to find the transition between this veld and lowland Renosterveld.

Despite the area’s environmental importance and individual efforts by farmers to conserve parts of the land, it has remained without formal protection. In recent years, however, a unique, collaborative conservation effort by farmers in the area has begun to slowly turn the tide, reversing the effects of more than a century of commercial land use and development in areas previously not recognised for their biological importance.

Conservatopn and farming
In 2002, private landowners started planning the Nuwejaars Wetland Special Management Area (SMA) – officially formed in 2008 – to re-establish ecosystems that had deteriorated. One of their main aims, explains Elim wine farmer and producer Conrad Vlok, is to manage the resources at their disposal in the most sustainable way possible.

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The area is not a nature or game reserve, but according to the principles of the SMA, a zone in which farmers seek to strike a balance between economic activity and conservation. This is by running profitable and sustainable farming businesses alongside conservation efforts aimed at, amongst others, protecting wetlands and often critically endangered habitat.

Chairperson Dirk Human explains that the 25 private landowners who form the SMA aim to “find the balance between environmental integrity, human well-being and economic efficiency within in the area”.

He adds that this unique conservation model, which involves collaboration between landowners and local communities, is believed to be the first of its kind in South Africa. Through this model, around 46 000ha of land is now being protected.

“We set out to restore, conserve and protect the entire biodiversity of the area,” says Dirk.

Game species
An exciting part of the project has been the reintroduction of game that once roamed the Agulhas Plain. The animals disappeared as the area became more populous and farming activity increased.

Buffalo (last seen 150 to 200 years ago), eland, quagga, bontebok and hartebeest are some of the larger species reintroduced over the past five years, followed by the hippopotamus. Five of these animals were released in the Waagschaalvlei, a wetland area within the SMA covering about 850ha. One of the younger hippos died, but two have since been born.

“The Agulhas Plain used to be home to a number of hippos,” explains Dirk. “They play an important role in the natural biodiversity of this area. As they wade through the wetland and marsh areas, they open up new waterways and prevent plants from overgrowing and clogging the system,” Dirk says.

Breeding with buffalo
One of the SMA’s initiatives, aimed at promoting biodiversity in the area as well as providing a new income stream to fund the project, is already showing results. In June 2010, the SMA brought in 15 disease-free buffalo specifically for breeding. The herd has grown to 26 and four of the young buffalo was sold recently.

Landowner Liohan Giliomee explains that they hope to establish a quality breeding herd of about 20 animals, ultimately marketing between 10 and 12 young buffalo per year.

“We breed with the buffalo in an intensive system. They’re kept on 80ha of land divided into 20ha camps. The holding area is situated in a part of the SMA where the animals are allowed to roam over an area of about 1 200ha. If we want to separate a bull from the herd, we have the facilities available to do so,” says Liohan.

Each of the 20ha camps has natural veld on which the animals graze, and a patch of cultivated pasture planted with oats and clover. During summer, the animals are fed lucerne and given a protein and mineral supplement in the form of a special game lick.

A 2,4m-high fence runs around the current game area for the reintroduced game, divided in two by a tarred road connecting Bredasdorp and Elim. A unique feature of the SMA is that where possible, instead of fencing in the game on the individual properties, farmers have fenced in commercial agricultural lands, giving the animals freedom to roam over an area of about 10 000ha.

Eliminating the aliens
One of the main conservation efforts of the SMA has been an arduous alien clearing programme. Assistant conservation manager Eugene Hahndiek explains that when they started the project, about 25% of the area needed clearing. “Using funding received from the German government, more than 3 000ha of land was originally cleared of invasive plant species.

The emphasis is now on follow-up and keeping these areas clear while trying to extend our efforts where possible,” he says. The main invasive species are Port Jackson (Acacia saligna), Australian myrtle (Leptospermum laevigatum) and spider gum (Eucalyptus conferruminata).

According to Eugene, cut alien plant material is chipped and used to produce a compost which farmers use to fertilise lands. These chips are also used to make ‘eco-log’ structures for wetland rehabilitation. Indigenous trees are being planted along riverbanks to discourage alien regrowth.

The SMA has an active controlled burning programme, where veld is block-burned to reduce the risk of runaway fires, promote healthy fynbos and reduce alien infestation.

Funding challenge
The Nuwejaars Wetland Special Management Area offers a new model of collective landowner action, which is likely to prove vital in conserving the endangered Cape Floristic Region, says Dirk.

The model has already been identified by conservation organisations and landowners as a way to combine conservation, climate change resilience and agriculture. But Dirk stresses that a project of this kind has to be driven by the landowners themselves.

“To make this type of project work, you need time, effort, innovative thinking and persistence. But you also need financial support at least until the venture becomes economically sustainable,” he says. Securing funding for the initiative has been a

According to Dirk, within 10 to 15 years, the SMA could become economically sustainable through revenue from the buffalo and tourism as game species become better established. As the SMA is a Section 21 company, all profits go to conservation activities in the area.

However, in the meantime, funding is needed to cover some of the running expenses. It costs R1 million per year to cover running, management and administrative costs, and establish the infrastructure needed to manage alien clearing, block burns and the movement of game.

Setting an example
The combined value of the land that falls within the SMA is in the region of R1 billion. Farmers were willing to voluntarily include their land in the SMA and manage it according to the principles of environmental integrity, human well-being and economic efficiency as set by the SMA.

“The SMA offers innovative ways of protecting land without government or other conservation organisations purchasing it. And we’re undertaking the work ourselves to protect our biodiversity,” explains Dirk. “It’s hoped that these stakeholders, such as government departments with conservation-related targets, will see how we’re helping them achieve those targets, with benefits to all those dependent on our fragile ecosystem and assist us in making them sustainable.”

Email Dirk Human at [email protected].

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Denene hails from a sugar cane farm in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal, but after school she relocated to the Cape Winelands to study, for many years, at the University of Stellenbosch. She worked as a journalist for Farmer’s Weekly since 2009 and in 2015 moved to Johannesburg as Deputy editor for the magazine. In 2016 she was appointed editor, and at the end of 2021, she stepped down from her position to pursue her journalism career.