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Phoenix Rising

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The devastating Knysna Fires of 2017 destroyed 22,000 hectares of the Garden Route, and a further 85,000 hectares burned over ten tragic days in October and November, 2018. Residents of the area have been left picking up the pieces, rebuilding homes and businesses – and, crucially, rehabilitating thousands of hectares of devastated fynbos and pine plantations.

But if you’re managing private land, where do you even begin? Interestingly, while large areas of fynbos burned, and the pine plantations were devastated, the extensive Afromontane forest experienced only some singeing on the edges. And that’s why we make such a fuss about biodiversity.

If you’ve never experienced one, it’s almost impossible to comprehend a wildfire that’s fanned by incredibly high winds, and fed by an oversupply of fuel. But that’s exactly what the people of Knysna, Sedgefield, Plett, Storms River, and dozens of surrounding villages have had to deal with – not once, but twice in a little over 16 months.

But this is a resilient community, and the rebuilding began almost as soon as the ash stopped falling from the skies. Rehabilitating the vegetation, though – and particularly the invaluable fynbos of the area – took (and will take) a little longer.

Fields of aliens

Environmentalists had been warning for some time before the fires of June 2017 that fuel loads in the region were dangerously high. This, they said, was due to the presence of invasive alien trees that had been colonising large swathes of land for many years.

Any species imported to an environment has the potential to become invasive, i.e. to out-compete the indigenous vegetation, if it finds conditions conducive, and – perhaps more importantly – if no insects or fungi living there attack it, and thus limit its capacity for reproduction.

Compounding the problem, the seeds of trees like rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) and Australian blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) – two of the most problematic plant invaders in the southern Cape – can rest in the ground for years, decades, even, before germinating, which they often do as a response to fire because, like the fynbos, they have evolved to do just that. So when the smoke cleared in June 2017, and gentle rains moistened the soil, the alien invaders germinated in their billions.

 

Landowners sensitive to the future, though, saw a window of opportunity: cutting down and removing mature aliens is vastly more expensive than removing their seedlings, and the fires had reduced all the mature trees to ashes. If they actively removed the seedlings before they became a problem, the fynbos might just recover with very little outside help.

It was definitely worth a shot.

The Western Head

Featherbed Nature Reserve – on 73 hectares of the Western Headland of the Knysna Lagoon – was the town’s biggest tourist attraction before June 2017, when its restaurant and tourism infrastructure were destroyed by the fires. (It will reopen for business around the time this magazine goes to print).

Beginning in about the 1960s, though, much of the land had become something of a desert of rooikrans and, while the previous owner had tried to control the invasion in subsequent years, he seemed to be fighting a losing battle. After the fires, though, the current owner put a horticulturist and teams of workers into the field to tackle the problem before it became overwhelming again.

The work didn’t begin immediately, though. The managers of the reserve consulted widely – with environmentalists, with academics, and with the trustees of at least one residential estate in the area who’d removed and controlled invasive aliens in the years before the fires – in order to formulate their plan.

And, without realising it, they discovered later that this had a number of positive effects: the delay allowed the rooikrans seedlings to grow out, and therefore become easily identifiable among the profusion of pioneer species of the rare Knysna Sands Fynbos that germinated equally quickly (and to everyone’s delighted surprise). And, since the rooikrans seedlings were still there in the ground when the first significant rains fell, they helped to stabilise the soil, so the erosion of the slopes that everyone feared never happened. (Is anything more satisfying than getting your enemy to do your work for you?)

Featherbed’s work flow was simple. A team of 15 labourers marked out lots of 30 x 30 metres with pegs and string, and, working in a line, pulled out the seedlings by hand, and left them on the ground to return the carbon to the soil.

On one occasion, when the team seemed to be taking far too long to cover its allotted 900 square metres, the horticulturist marked out a test plot – one square metre – and pulled and counted the seedlings himself. There were 217! And he only counted the bigger ones – those bigger than a centimetre in height.

Multiplied by 900, that means that the team eventually pulled around 195,300 plants in the four hours it took to complete the task.

It’s hard, back-breaking work, but, once the horticulturist explained why they were doing what they were doing – in order to restore biodiversity to reduce fuel loads so that any future fires would cause less damage than the one they’d just experienced – the team understood that they were part of something greater than any one of them.
It was a message they took to heart, and that made all the difference.

As tragic as they’ve been, one lesson learned from the Knysna fires of 2017 and 2018 should stand managers of residential estates in good stead: protect the natural biodiversity of your property.

At all costs.

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