Vergelegen fights alien vegetation
Somerset West - Wine farms can increase their sustainability and do more for the environment and Vergelegen Wine Estate in Somerset West has shown that it takes commitment.
The 3 200ha Vergelegen property had 100% infestation of alien vegetation on about 2 000ha in 2004 when a decision was made in conjunction with owners Anglo American to remove the aliens and restore as much of the indigenous plants as possible.
"We're rehabilitating 2 200ha of Vergelegen, but we started with just two saw men clearing a fire belt in 2004. We divided the property into 26 management areas," resident conservationist Gerald Wright told News24.
Alien vegetation was introduced mainly from Australia to stabilise the sand dunes in 1825, but quickly outgrew and smothered the natural vegetation. Also, alien plants use much more water than the indigenous flora.
"In 1997, we had a fire that destroyed a fair bit of the property and it rang some alarm bells. We needed to look at the natural heritage," said Leslie Naidoo, Vergelegen commercial and risk manager.
"The Anglo board put a budget together and a timeline of ten years and set aside R14m to rehabilitate the estate," he added.
That work, however, was destroyed by a devastating fire in 2009 which wiped out all the vegetation on the property. Even though the alien vegetation was destroyed, the heat resulted in the germination of the seed bank and during a News24 tour of the property, thick growth of alien vegetation could be seen in some areas.
The project though, continued and primarily uses hard manual labour to physically remove the seedlings along with some spraying in areas where it won't damage the indigenous vegetation.
"The fire set us back and destroyed all the work that was done. But we had to control the re-growth and we are increasing our staff from 125 to 200, so we can include 100 saw men and 100 cleaners. There are large parts of the property that doesn't lend itself to mechanical clearing," said Naidoo.
The work has had its rewards and new species, thought to be extinct have been discovered on the property.
"We found species deemed to be extinct. The Lachenalia lilyflora was found a whole new distribution area and it's thriving," said Wright.
"We also have leopard, honey badger and Cape hare on the property and we've seen an increase in the number of bird species," he added.
The water resources have increased and Wright said that some streams have been running again after being dormant for many years.
"There's a man on this farm who just stood staring at this stream when he saw it running. He told me that in the 40 years he had been on the property, he had last seen it running when he was a boy. And he just stood there with tears coming down his face," said Wright.
More than 2.2 mega litres of water now runs into the dam which has been stocked with salmon to feed to the birds on the property. Wright said that the indigenous fish do not grow big enough to sustain the bird population.
Vergelegen is the largest privately funded project of its kind in the country but there is still lots of work to do and it may never be possible to totally eradicate all alien vegetation.
"There's still a huge alien seed bank and it suffocates the natural vegetation and because of the fire we will probably have to introduce some indigenous vegetation.
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