Cape Town - Vergelegen wine estate out in Somerset West, internationally renowned for its vintages, is garnering worldwide interest in its groundbreaking conservation programmes.
The two thousand hectares of non-arable farm land between the Helderberg and Hottentots Holland mountains has long-time been in the process of being restored to a pristine example of the Cape’s natural flora and fauna heritage as part of an ambitious, multi-dimensional conservation project on the 300-year-old wine farm.
Largest private conservation project in South Africa
Eight million densely packed invasive trees have already been cleared from 1 000 hectares in the ten year, R14million programme believed to be the largest private conservation project in South Africa - with the property currently in the process of obtaining heritage protection certification from Cape Nature.
It’s geared to combating alien and invasive plant infestation and nurturing the return of natural vegetation, wetlands, birds and animals. Interestingly, some 140 hectares of this land is renosterveld, says Vergelegen CEO Don Tooth, of which only 4% is left in South Africa, with the remainder taken over for agriculture.
"The Western Cape hosts some 8600 plant species, but the single greatest threat to this fynbos is alien or invasive plants: the sand dunes of the Cape Flats between Vergelegen and Cape Town were heavily planted with Australian acacia and wattle species to stabilise the dunes. Port Jackson, rooikrans and pine have thrived and infested land as far as Port Elizabeth, 800 kilometres away. More than 750 indigenous plant species now face extinction.
“The full extent of this threat was realised at Vergelegen after a major fire in 1997,” says Tooth.
Vergelegen decided to fight back with comprehensive environmental plan
“The fire was driven by 160 km/hour winds that swept through the property. We realised that the alien vegetation would now more than double and seriously set back all of the previous environmental goals achieved.”
Vergelegen decided to fight back with a comprehensive ten-year environmental plan headed up by Gerald Wright, an independent conservationist who is highly experienced in combating alien vegetation. He has helped train a team of 40 formerly unemployed people from local communities who are now setting new standards of productivity in environmental work.
As alien vegetation uses 50 to 800 times more water than fynbos, reducing the alien vegetation has already boosted water flow. Wetland areas are re-emerging and larger quantities of cleaner water are flowing from the farm to neighbouring communities.
Two species of lachenalia have been discovered
“A wetland area that was virtually dead is now fed by three streams that a local resident says are running for the first time in 50 years,” says Wright. “In the first year of control, 22 indigenous plant species were recorded and this has now reached 35. Two species of lachenalia have been discovered for the first time in the area: lachenalia liliflora was deemed extinct and this is a new distribution area, and the other lily has yet to be identified.”
The number of bird species has soared from 80 to 109 and there are frequent sightings of black and fish eagles and malachite sunbirds. Secretary birds and blue cranes are breeding on the farm and visiting birds include steppe buzzards from Russia and yellow billed kites from North Africa. The animal population now includes numerous antelope species, leopard, caracal, snake weasels, bat-eared foxes and spotted genet.
Vital Cape Town Leopard Project's monitoring project
Added to this the estate also participates in the Cape Town Leopard Project's monitoring project, setup in 2010. These images capture rate sightings of the Cape Leopard, as well as porcupines and caracal that roam the region.
The recordings form part of a field study on leopard populations within the City of Cape Town that began in 2010. The research, co-ordinated by the Cape Leopard Trust (CLT) stretches from the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve to the Helderberg Nature Reserve and includes all city-owned land managed by various departments as well as private land.
Tooth says it is an important partner to this project as the estate makes up a large portion of the leopard study area.
Vergelegen pledged its support and granted permission for researchers to set up monitoring stations on the property. In addition to this, the estate purchased its own camera traps, which increased the amount of equipment and potential monitoring sites available to conduct research.
Four fixed cameras on the farm at heights ranging from 80 to 473 metres have a motion sensor that activates the cameras, which operate using a flash at night. There had been anecdotal evidence that there were leopard on the farm, but this was the first time nocturnal sightings were confirmed on camera.
"Leopard fills the role of the apex predator in the Western Cape ecosystem; and it acts as an ‘umbrella species’ which will effectively help in the conservation of smaller, lower profile predators and other species which live and make up the leopards’ home range."
"Evidence of species such as leopard, honey badgers and caracal on the Vergelegen Estate is something to be proud of. In an urban environment, with development and social pressures resulting in the loss of habitat and species, there are few places which are home to such a full spectrum of species. Apex predators are usually the first to disappear," says Booth.
A leader in the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative
This programme has made Vergelegen a leader in the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI) that encourages wineries to play a major role in conserving the Cape Floral Kingdom. Currently six BWI ‘champions’, six co-op cellars and 93 members are setting aside and conserving 63 709 hectares, or 63% of the total vineyard footprint of the Western Cape.
Vergelegen has also set up a Centre of Learning Excellence with six Western Cape tertiary institutions, plus overseas universities such as Bristol and Marburg. Several students – from undergraduate to post-doctoral – are conducting research at Vergelegen. One project, run in conjunction with the City of Cape Town, is a social study on the Vergelegen bontebok: once viewed as the rarest antelope in the world, the total population of this buck has grown from only 18 in the 1930s to around 2000.
The research findings will be shared with farmers and other stakeholders and Vergelegen is also planning an outreach programme to help educate young learners about their environmental and cultural heritage.
Real proof of the pudding is in the tasting
For many wine lovers, though, the real proof of the pudding is in the tasting. Vergelegen wine maker André van Rensburg is adamant that the biodiversity move is improving yields and boosting the already formidable wine quality. “You can only maintain virus-free vineyards and sustainable agriculture if you reduce the intensity of pesticides and herbicides. We have to restore nature and bring back species and ensure this farm is in a better condition than when we received it,” he says.
“Biodiversity complements the move to more natural growing of wine, allowing a truer reflection of the characteristics of individual vineyards and acknowledging the market’s call for more products grown in harmony with nature.”
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