Back to its roots

2011-06-22 00:00

EARLIER this year, The Witness ran a story about a Department of Agriculture bungle that saw scores of KwaZulu-Natal farmers being granted permission to plough up virgin grasslands, most of them in the midlands. These grasslands had been previously identified by the South African ­National Biodiversity Institute as extremely valuable and to be conserved. While an attempt was made to rectify this blunder, in many cases ploughing had already gone ahead.

Of course, not all farmers went for the gap. One who didn’t was Chris Wilkinson, owner of the farm Tillietudlem, set on the southern side of the Inhluzane Mountain in the Upper Dargle, the source of the Elands River. The farm is probably better known as the setting for Ti­llietudlem Game and Trout Lodge.

Since Wilkinson, a successful businessman, bought the farm in 1994, he has implemented a programme to rehabilitate the land to its original state. Wilkinson currently resides in Brisbane, Australia, so the farm and the restoration are being handled by Tillietudlem’s managers, Mike and Carol Fynn.

“In 1994 it was full of bramble, wattle, gums, old cattle fences and scrap metal,” says Mike Fynn. “Chris has devoted the past 16-plus years to the rehabilitation of this beautiful area, removing hectares of wattle, bramble and other exotic species.”

The farm was first settled by the Ogram family in 1873, and their original farmhouse, now called Ogram’s Colonial House, forms the main lodge at Tillietudlem. Handsomely restored, it stands in the shade of an oak tree said to have been planted in 1906.

The farm belonged to the Ograms for several generations before they sold in 1956. Tillietudlem then went through the hands of several owners before Wilkinson bought it in 1994. Since then, he has bought two adjacent properties along the Elands River valley, and Tillietudlem now consists of 2 000 hectares, 1 500 of which are given over to game.

When he bought the farm, Wilkinson consulted grassland experts — their verdict: “It’s basically in damn good nick, it just needs to be protected”. So Wilkinson set about building dams, clearing alien trees and plants and restoring the grasslands.

Fynn acknowledges that few farmers facing the financial pressures of commercial agriculture have the luxury of being able to undertake a project like this. “At the moment this is not being done for profit, but to restore the land to its original state, to restore the natural status quo. The strategy is to get things to a point where the farm becomes a viable concern in terms of income, but that everything we do fits under the umbrella of the ecosystem.”

To that end, game endemic to the area have been reintroduced in tandem with a programme of veld management. An element of that programme is an Nguni cattle herd. “It is a registered stud herd known as the Inhluzane Ngunis,” says Fynn. “They are hardy and resistant to disease, and they are a valuable aid to veld management, both as grazers and for the natural fertiliser they produce.”

In some areas Fynn has planted Leucosidea sericea, commonly known as ouhout or mshishi, to act as a pioneer species for indigenous forest species. “It gets quite thick, and discourages the bramble and the wattle.”

According to Fynn, Tillietudlem is “95% there”, but one of the more recently acquired properties is an ecological disaster area: an abandoned forestry area infested with young gum, wattle and pine, while bramble has invaded previously harvested areas. Fynn is gradually rehabilitating the area with a labour-intensive programme of slashing, burning, cutting, spraying — and then doing it all again. “It’s going to take three seasons of work to win this battle,” he says. But already, the incursion of indigenous grasses — and animal and bird species — into partially cleared areas show that it is a battle being won.

With a view to making the farm financially viable, crop production is also being investigated. “There is some arable land but we don’t want to do anything that interferes with the ecosystem,” says Fynn. “So it has to be a low-volume, high­income crop, such as blueberries. We intend using areas that were tilled in the past.”

The restoration of Tillietudlem has seen mammal and bird species return, taking advantage of the variety of habitats, including wetlands, grasslands, indigenous forest, open waters and rivers.

“When we came there were no Blue cranes. This year there were five pairs,” says Carol Fynn. “We also have Blue swallows and Ground hornbill as well as Cape parrots. The abundance of birdlife has seen us accepted onto the KZN Birding route.”

The dams and rivers are home to both species of otter — Cape clawless and Spotted neck — while the grasslands feature eland, Blue wildebeest, zebra and blesbok, as well as groups of endangered small antelope species such as Oribi, Vaal reebok and Mountain reedbuck. “We also have a transient leopard,” adds Mike.

In the spring and summer months the grasslands offer a rainbow of flowering plants, including agapanthus, gladioli, arum lilies, grass orchids and Watsonias, as well as the grass species characteristic of mist-belt grasslands.

Right: Carol and Mike Fynn, managers of Tillietudlem Game and Trout Lodge.

Considering that more than 60% of South Africa’s grasslands have been lost, mainly to agriculture and forestry, and that only 2,2% of the country’s mist-belt grassland is under formal conservation, Tillietudlem has become a national asset­.

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