South Africa’s largest private alien vegetation clearing project, at Vergelegen wine estate, has created hundreds of jobs and revealed abundant plants, birds, insects and animals, writes Judy Bryant.
South African Country Life
Judy Bryant and supplied
“This is a wait-and-see game. You have no idea what’s going to come up here, after burning, as the ground holds both indigenous and alien seeds,” says Leslie Naidoo, risk and commercial manager at Vergelegen wine estate in Somerset West. “It’s always exciting to see what we have.”
We are standing in a beautiful valley with the Hottentots Holland mountains behind us, surrounded by swathes of restios, ericas and proteas. In the distance are immaculate rows of vineyards, and further beyond, a sliver of False Bay glitters blue in the sunlight.
At our feet a small, low-lying white protea protrudes above the soil. It’s identified as a ground protea (Protea scorzonerifolia) by Rupert Koopman, a botanist in the Scientific Services Unit of CapeNature, who’s snapping away with his cellphone camera.
Rupert’s spoilt for choice, as this protea is just one of numerous plant treasures we view in a swathe of Boland granite fynbos. This tract of land was previously thickly infested with alien vegetation, but was cleared, and the seedbank regenerated by a summer fire. Now the soil, still damp from a spring shower, could reveal anything from a rare plant to an unwanted alien seedling.
Treading carefully among the profusion of plants, Rupert says: “Fynbos is important everywhere, but the variety of habitats here at Vergelegen is special. The intact connection of lower flats to mountain is now so rare as to be unusual, especially so close to Cape Town.”
It’s hard to believe that over a decade ago it was nearly impossible to walk through parts of the estate, which stretches over 3000 hectares. “Some 2200 hectares of non-arable land were infested with alien vegetation – with 80 000 to 100 000 stems crowding a single hectare in some of the worst-affected areas,” says Leslie.
But fast forward and, thanks to a close collaboration between local conservationists and farm management, and funding from owners Anglo American plc, Vergelegen has become the site of South Africa’s largest private alien vegetation clearing project. The results have been spectacular.
“Fifteen hectares of critically endangered Lourensford Alluvium Fynbos and 105 hectares of critically endangered Swartland Shale Renosterveld have re-emerged,” says Leslie. “Because indigenous plants draw up less water, our water resources have expanded and we now have over 80 hectares of wetlands.”
“The sheer scale of this project is quite something,” adds Rupert. “It’s like a laboratory as you can see just what it takes to clear a large area. You can measure everything from the amount of water, to safety and mitigation of fire risk aspects.”
This is because Vergelegen applies the same exacting safety and monitoring standards to its estate as it does on its mines: wood cutters wear full safety gear, tools are carried only on the exterior of vehicles, and staff wear seatbelts in transport vehicles that are driven at a maximum 40km/hour.
Leslie lists some of the project’s other benefits as we splash over the causeway of the full Rooiland dam, back to the management offices. “One of the most satisfying results has been the increase in the number of bird and animal species. We cooperate with the Cape Leopard Trust and five different leopards have been identified using our hidden infrared cameras.
“Bird species counts take place every month – and from 80 in 1995, this number has increased to 152. Some 279 plant species have been recorded, including 22 on the Red Data List. Insect life has also increased exponentially with the growth in natural predators. We’ve reduced our insecticide sprays by 75%.”
These remarkable statistics would not have been possible without the input of local conservationists, says Vergelegen CEO Don Tooth. Seated in his sun-dappled office, which overlooks a field dotted with contentedly grazing Nguni cattle, Don explains that he was considering planting more pine trees after Anglo American bought the estate in 1987.
Instead, on the recommendation of environmentalists such as Gerald Wright, who managed the local Helderberg nature reserve, he decided to tackle the dense alien vegetation.
“Right from the beginning we realised the importance of transparency and bringing in outside experts,” says Don. “We established a trust in 1995, with an equal number of our managers and external representatives.”
Recognising the size and importance of the project, Anglo American ramped up funding from 2004. While this speeded up the programme, Don explained that the project still faced numerous setbacks.
These included three fires – in 1997, 2009 and 2017 – that devastated much of the estate. Most of the areas that had already been rehabilitated had to be cleared again; and the project had to be re-assessed and refined when the team realised the magnitude of the alien vegetation seedbank.
Such challenges were finally overcome, and on a hot October day it was time to celebrate.
Norman Mbazima, deputy chairman of Anglo American, and director Godfrey Gomwe, flew to the estate from Johannesburg. Minister of Environmental Affairs Anton Bredell travelled from Cape Town; and a group of journalists joined management and conservationists at the elegant Rose Terrace cottage to hear more about the project.
Soon, a convoy of vehicles headed off for two lone eucalyptus trees to be felled, marking the end of the clearing phase of the project.
“For us, it’s a case of having something we can show our kids and grandchildren, and be happy with what we’ve done,” said Norman, pulling on his safety gloves and adjusting the visor of his helmet.
Minister Bredell said the project represented answers to three challenges – overcoming poverty through job creation; declaring war on alien vegetation; and freeing up water resources. Gazing out over the exquisite scenery, he commented: “In this environment we find out souls. The Vergelegen family has set a very high standard and we need to share this as a best practice.”
Don says that the project has had a ripple effect in the local community, as it’s generated an average of 137 jobs a year since 1995. Teams will still be kept busy with maintenance, as alien vegetation has a nasty habit of returning.
Among the contractors will be Joyce Makambi, originally from Qunu in the Eastern Cape. Joyce has built up Buntukazi Contractors over four years and now travels through from Grabouw with her team of eleven people – seven women and four men.
Reggie Jantjies, owner of Cynaroides Enviro Enterprise, said his teams had worked at Vergelegen since 2017.
“My business has grown from employing 11 people, not having a reliable vehicle, and equipment not being up to standard,” said Reggie. “But everything has changed. I bought three vehicles, paid off my debts and built a relationship with the bank. We used to pay workers cash, then as the business grew, we set up a bank payroll system. Regular work has given us stability.”
Like all good stories, the best was kept for last. Minister Bredell confirmed that 1900 hectares of the estate would be promulgated as a private nature reserve with the same protection status as the Kruger National Park. This will ensure that the restored land will be preserved for future generations ‒ an excellent reason for the group to uncork several bottles of Vergelegen wine in celebration!
First published in SA Country Life magazine.