The Lynedoch Valley Ecosystem: An Overview
The hamlet of Lynedoch is located on the R310 midway between Stellenbosch and the N2 freeway. It lies in a rural setting surrounded by vineyards, fruit orchards, strawberry farms and pastures and is approximately 85 square kilometres in extent. More recently, urban pressure has resulted in the building of two golf courses, a shopping centre, an amusement park, restaurants and housing estates. More are planned. The renosterveld vegetation, or what is left of it, has been religated to small patches, or fragments, which are barely noticable to the casual observer.
Figure 1. Google map showing the Lynedoch Valley. For a dynamic version of the same map with more information and zoom capability click here.
However, the valley did not always look like this. It was once occupied by large herds of game. Two species of antelope occurred in this area: the now extinct Blue Antelope or Bloubok (Hippotragus leucophaeus), a close relative of Roan and Sable, and the Bontebok (Damaliscus dorcas dorcas). Another, now extinct species, the Quagga, closely related to the Plains (Burchell’s) Zebra, was also very common here. The vegetation, as can be inferred from the presence of these large herbivores, was very likely a mix of shrubs and grasses, and with a substantial bulb component. The proportion of grasses was very likely higher than today. Wild olive and other indigenous trees could be found along the Eerste and Blouklippen rivers, as well as on heuweltjies.
The landscape was already influenced by humans when the European settlers arrived. About 2 000 years ago, the indigenous Khoekhoen adopted a herding lifestyle, and herds of 10 000 – 20 000 cattle and sheep were reportedly kept in the area that is now the Western Cape. To maintain grazing for their livestock, the Khoekhoen (or Khoikhoi) used to burn the veld after heavy grazing, and returned one to four years later to the burnt sites, where fresh grazing became available. Burning increased the proportion of grasses and annuals, as well as bulbs, and reduced the shrub component.
With the arrival of the European settlers, the big herds of game were hunted to extinction. This changed the face of the vegetation. While migratory grazing and browsing at low levels by game or Khoekhoen herds encouraged the growth of palatable grasses and shrubs, “sedentary” overgrazing (as when livestock is kept in camps and on farms) allowed unpalatable shrubs (like renosterbos, Dicerothamnus rhinocerotis) to grow. Thus, with the removal of indigenous grazers and browsers, combined with the encampment of livestock, unpalatable shrubs took over. This, together with the ability of renosterbos to spread very quickly, resulted in renosterveld as we know it today – a shrubby vegetation mainly dominated by renosterbos. Repression of fire by current regimes (in the form of controlled burning) has exacerbated the situation even further.
Early farmers regarded renosterbos as an indicator of good farmland because it is associated with fertile soils, moderate rainfall and flat topography—exactly the conditions required for agriculture. As a result most renosterveld in low-lying areas such as Lynedoch have since become planted over with vineyards, olive groves, fruit orchards and wheat fields. With this loss of biodiversity has come the pollution of rivers and ground water due to the need for increased pesticide and herbicide use; habitat loss has contributed to species extinctions. In addition, as urban settlements expanded, further encroachement into renosterveld occured resulting in a dysfunctional ecosystem with all the environmental and sociological problems associated with it.
Fortunately, with a rise in environmental awareness and an appreciation for the importance of biodiverstiy, various individuals and institutions are working to reverse this destructive trend. The Spier Estate which occupies about 800 hectares in the centre of the valley of which 200ha is still relatively “natural” is trying to set a good example. In their 2006 Sustainability Report they claim to promote biodiversity by:
- Eliminating invasive alien species on their land
- Cleaning river corridors
- Developing green open spaces
- Creating an enabling environment for restoration of natural fauna and flora
- Putting the most biodiverse portions of their land into conservation in perpetuity
In 2005, they commissioned The Nature Conservation Corporation to compile a comprehensive management plan for their property. The study revealed that at least 275 indigenous plant species (7 of which are red data species), 66 bird species and 11 mammal species were still present. For a an updated plant species checklist for Spier and environs, click here; for an updated bird list, click here.
Unfortunately, the study was cut short leaving much baseline information ungathered with regard to insects, amphibians, fish, reptiles and a seasonal botanical survey. However, a spring survey in 2006 by the same company made the most incredible discovery of a community of Watsonia amabilis which was thought to be hitherto extinct! We hope that Spier has the will to implement the objectives and recommendations made by their consultants and to commit the necessary resources (financial and human) required to sustain them.
The University of Stellenbosch contributes to conservation of our valley by hosting the Sustainability Institute and the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies. In addition, it contributes to research via its staff. Dr. Cornelia Krug via the Department of Entomology & Conservation Ecology published an excellent manual titled Practical Guidelines for the Restoration of Renosterveld which provides a background on renosterveld, outlines the research conducted within the Renosterveld Restoration Project, and provides practical restoration guidelines for renosterveld vegetation aimed at landowners and farm managers, agricultural and conservation extension officers, conservation managers, but also at anybody interested in renosterveld. For the full version of the guidelines, click here.
Other studies by Newton (2005) and Von Hase (2003) have added to the ecological knowledge of the area. These researchers identified several “fragments” of renosterveld still present in the valley. Fragments are important resevoirs of biodiversity and should be conserved at all costs. For a popular article on the “Riches of the Renosterveld” published in Veld and Flora December 2002, click here .
Less than ten percent of original renosterveld remains today after decades of commercial farming. The Cape Lowlands were rated as a number one priority for conservation by Cape Action for People and the Environment (C.A.P.E.) based on the irreplaceable nature of their indigenous remnants (remnants are fragments of remaining renosterveld land as small as 1000m2 that still exist along rivers or for one reason or another have escaped the plough) . As most of these are owned by commercial farmers, it is important that a better understanding of their attitudes, needs and willingness to conserve the renosterveld remnants on their farms is needed to insure success of any meaningful conservation plans. An interesting study by Sue Winter as part of a Masters Thesis through the University of Stellenbosh revealed that more than 50% of the farmers she interviewed in the Bot River area were not aware that renosterveld was endangered or had any botanical significance at all. However, she also found that once the importance of renosterveld and the principles of biodiversity were explained to them, 63% of those interviewed were willing in principle to conserve renosterveld on their farms in the future, and 13% were unsure. A further 15% were not willing to conserve immediately, but possibly in the future with more assistance, while only 10% refused to consider conservation.
A significant development undoubedly inspired by the above study, was the creation of the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative. The BWI is a pioneering partnership between the South African wine industry and the conservation sector. The goals are to minimise the further loss of threatened natural habitat, and to contribute to sustainable wine production, through the adoption of biodiversity guidelines by the South African wine industry. One of the strategies of the BWI is to identify and enlist interested producers as members or champions of the initiative, who will implement the biodiversity guidelines, conserve critical ecosystems and incorporate a biodiversity story into their winery experience. They define biodiversity as involving the balanced interaction of genes, species, ecosystems and processes that allows life on our planet to persist over time. When biodiversity is intact, species and ecosystems are resilient, enabling them to adapt to environmental changes. When biodiversity is lost, nature responds unpredictably, making it difficult for growers to plan or function.
Lusan Premium Wines owns and operates several wine farms in the Stellenbosch/Lynedoch area. Motivated in part by the Biodiversity and Wines Initiative, they became sensitive to the need to give something back to nature as well as the opportunity to use “biodiversity” as a selling point for their wines. In August of 2006 they approved a modest budget to hire a restoration horticulturalist to restore a small piece of land at Olives (Opposite Spier Estate on the R310) back to renosterveld as part of a pilot project that they hoped would also provide knowledge and experience for restoring larger areas on their other farms. The strategy used was to first clear the project area of weeds and then reintroduce as many of the indigenous plants that could still be found growing on far corners of the farm. To increase biodiversity, additional species were purchased from local nurseries. A few strategic waterings and weedings were carried out during the following year to help insure successfull establishment. Just over a year has passed now and the plot has grown out so as to be noticeable from the road. As you are driving towards Stellenbosch just past the entrance to Spier, glance up to the green oval on the hill to your left. If you’re lucky, and it’s the right time of year, your eyes will be met with the dazzeling crimson colours of pelargoniums, polygalas and mesembryanthemums; the bright yellows of Chrysanthemoides, Euryops and Athanasias and the white hues of cape rain daisies and kappokbos. For a complete list of plants found there, click here.
Private companies have also played a role locally in supporting research and restoration. Lafarge Quarries in Eerste River commissioned Dr. Pat Holmes to conduct trials on their property to look into renosterveld restoration on cultivated lands. Information generated through Dr. Holme’s work is also useful to anyone wishing to establish an indigenous garden or landscape using plants from our area. To view her original research work and a checklist of plant species found, click here.
Lafarge has also won numerous environmental awards for their efforts in protecting the African Fish Eagle (Haliaeetus vocifer). Several mating pairs can be found nesting in the tall eucalyptus trees located on their property behind the quarry.
While it may not be possible, or even desirable, to restore the ecosystem of Lynedoch back to the days of the Blue Antelope, it is absolutely imperative that we conserve the natural resources (and natural vegetaion fragments) that we still have left and to restore key areas if possible. If we fail to act now and to educate our neighbors (including children) to conserve our natural heritage, we will wake up someday in a concrete jungle similiar to Cape Town and (even) Stellenbosch as the march of urbanization pushes into our beautiful valley. Stop this madness by supporting only sustainable development and blowing the whistle on blatant acts of disregard for the environment.
Anyone interested in networking conservation issues in the Lynedoch area can contact Myke Scott at (021) 881-3167 or by email.