A rare ecosystem’s beacon of hope

2011-08-30 00:00

STANDING at the beacon on top of the appropriately named Beacon Hill provides a spectacular 360-degree view of KwaZulu-Natal. Below you is Midmar Dam, beyond Inhlazane mountain at the head of the Dargle valley, and, depending on weather conditions, the Drakensberg. Behind you are the forests­ of the Karkloof and the prominence of Otto’s Bluff.

Encircled by housing and forestry, Beacon Hill lies on the outskirts of Howick­. Access is via Lakeview Road where the uMngeni Municipality has erected signage, although an unofficial entry point from the Curry’s Post Road has no such signage.

But it’s not the spectacular view that makes Beacon Hill a landmark, but the fact that it’s home to a remnant of climax mist-belt grassland, a highly threatened vegetation type in this part of the world.

Earlier this year, on July 26, the Friends of Beacon Hill was officially launched in an effort to support the conservation of Beacon Hill’s unique grassland ecosystem and the hill’s survival as a site of conservation significance and as a low-impact recreation area. The launch served to formalise the existence of a group that had already been active for more than a year.

“We decided to form our own committee to look after it,” says Eve Hughes, Friends committee member. “The hill is important because although there is some alien plant encroachment the land has never been cultivated, has not been heavily grazed for decades and is thus of great conservation importance.”

Although cattle, sheep and goats have grazed the area in the past, the lack of cultivation sees Beacon Hill boasting an impressive list of indigenous flora, including the critically endangered Woods asclepias (Asclepias woodii) which reappeared on the hill after not being seen for nearly 100 years. Beacon Hill plays host to 105 indigenous flower species in all, as well as 19 grasses, six tree species, 62 birds and 10 mammals.

Beacon Hill is also of archaeological interest. There are the vestiges of the old 19th-century wagon trail winding in a loop up the hill. In the past it led out of Howick towards Curry’s Post from where it progressed by stages to Estcourt, Ladysmith, Newcastle, and eventually to the highveld of the old Transvaal.

Already a popular area for recreational walking, uMngeni Municipality’s acting manager Sandile Buthelezi says Beacon­ Hill can also serve as a migration corridor, an environmental experiential learning venue, a site for an indigenous plant nursery, including traditional medicinal plants. He welcomed the creation­ of the Friends of Beacon Hill “in terms of augmenting the effect of partnership­ to ensure the conservation of the area”. Interest in protecting Beacon Hill goes back to the fifties when, in 1957, Sappi began developing forestry in the area and applied to the municipality for a lease on the land. At the time some of the lower slopes of the hill were occupied­ by Indian families. Following objection to what would have been their forced removal the entire hill was excluded from the lease. These families later moved to Howick­ West but not as a result of state coercion.

In the nineties, councillor John Tidbury, who died in 2009, and who lived at the foot of Beacon Hill, recognised its ecological­ significance and pioneered its registration as a Site of Conservation Significance­. The certificate was awarded­ in April 2005 at a function held at Grace College and is on file at the uMngeni­ Municipality. Due to a recent change in the legislation this classification has lost its previously protected status and the Friends of Beacon Hill are thus encouraging the municipality to register the land with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s new Biodiversity Stewardship Programme. In March this year, Duct-Howick and Friends of Beacon Hill hosted Caroline Conway-Physick from Ezem- velo­ KZN Wildlife to present the programme to a large gathering of interested­ people at the Scout Hall.

The Friends of Beacon Hill would like to see the hill included as part of the greater Howick-uMngeni Conservancy envisaged by Duct-Howick (a branch of the Dusi Umgeni Conservation Trust) and other like-minded local conservation bodies. To strengthen further the conservation thrust, the Friends plan to join the Midlands Conservancies Forum and to affiliate as a WESSA Friends Group.

The initial application to have Beacon Hill declared a site of conservation significance detailed the burning of firebreaks and block burns which are vital as the indigenous flora is dependent on periodic burning. Subsequently a comprehensive management plan for the grasslands was prepared by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife biodiversity­ planner James Wakelin. Sadly, he was killed in an aircrash in 2008 and the whereabouts of his plan is unknown.

“Generally, it is advisable to burn grasslands every two years to maintain optimum conditions. This has been practised [on Beacon Hill] since 2003,” according to Buthelezi. “The aim has been to burn, for veld management purposes, one half of the hill one year and the other half the next year so that each ‘half’ is burnt every two years. This allows for ‘shelter’ to be available to fauna when the burn occurs.”

In June 2007, a wild fire whipped up by 100 km/hour winds spread from Curry­’s Post and burnt across the entire hill. “As a result, Beacon Hill was only burnt for veld management again in 2009,” says Buthelezi, “reverting to the aforementioned pattern of burning — hence this year the other half was burnt.”

However, the Friends of Beacon Hill beg to differ. They say only the lower slopes have been burnt by the municipality and that the top section of Beacon Hill has not been burnt since the fire of 2007. The long delay in burning has led to the mist-belt grassland becoming moribund, thereby impacting negatively on the site’s rich biodiversity.

The uMngeni Local Municipality’s Parks, Gardens and Environment section has used tractors and slashers to mow paths and tracers on Beacon Hill, and undertaken alien vegetation control with assistance from Working on Fire and the Invasive Alien Species Programme. In the past, the Working for Water programme has been involved in removing alien plants.

Currently, the greatest threats to Beacon Hill’s biodiversity are the encroachment of invasive alien plants, the lack of a regular burning regime and unauthorised access via the Curry’s Post landfill site with consequent access by vehicular traffic and illegal dumping occurring. According to the Friends of Beacon Hill it is imperative that, as per national legislation, a management plan now be developed for the area.

 

• The Friends of Beacon Hill committee will be arranging talks and walks on the hill. The first event is scheduled for October 8 when Eve Hughes will give an afternoon talk on the spring flowers, followed by an interpretative walk, later there will be an evening presentation on the role of pollinators in maintaining biodiversity.

• If you would like to join the Friends of Beacon Hill contact Pam Haynes at dart@sai.co.za or 033 330 5693 for more information.

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