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Bush Clearing on Ingwelala

We frequently receive letters and e-mails from our members. One such communication asked the Board to take action with regard to the problem of the bush encroachment onto the grasslands at Ingwelala.

The request from this member and the response from our Reserve Manager, John Llewellyn, make for interesting reading.

Our member wrote:-

"I gather that the budget for bush clearing is only about R60000 per annum. Surely we can raise a special levy of R500 per unit? This would give an extra R100000 to spend on bush clearing. I would love to see some of the open grassland areas being trebled in size; and also the creation of a few new grasslands. We could bus in about 30 labourers from Bushbuck Ridge or Acorn Hoek for a few weeks and do a massive clearing operation that will be supervised by Pieter. If we do not do this then the bush encroachment will never be halted. I would like to see this happen in my lifetime and I only have about 25 years to go."

And John Llewellyn responded with:-

"The ecological principles around bush clearing are not as straight forward as has been suggested. However, I am very grateful for the suggestion put to us and for your support of our conservation based initiatives.

I'll try my best to summarise the salient points in a logical order.

Plant succession is a natural phenomenon where processes take place, driving vegetation from initial to climax stages. Open grasslands in a savanna system naturally succeed into wooded areas over a considerable period of time. The Umbabat and the surrounding reserves have been influenced by man during the past century and this has caused our open grasslands to gradually disappear, resulting in what is called "bush encroachment".

The problem with this is that the biodiversity is being affected and many animal, bird and insect species which favour grasslands have disappeared from the system. Global warming is believed to exacerbate the problem because the excess carbons favour tree growth. In the Ingwelala area over-grazing has considerably reduced the grass cover resulting in cool veld fires; whereas normal savannas experience hot veld fires which combat the woody encroachment by stunting bush growth - thereby allowing the grasses to survive.

Our challenge at Ingwelala is either to maintain or to recreate these grassland areas. In order to do this we need to encourage vigorous grass growth and thereafter to use this grassy fuel load in the late winter to burn the veld so that it stunts the bush encroachment. This will be a fairly long term process. Manual bush clearing is a much more labour intensive alternative to burning but it does have the benefit of speeding up the process. The downside of this alternative is of course the cost aspect.

The other negative is that manual clearing has to be selective. It is also necessary to apply a chemical to the cut stumps in order to suppress coppice growth. The chemical success rate is disappointing in that at least two follow up treatments are the norm. Coppice not treated can, over time, compound the problem by creating even more bush than that which existed when the clearing process started. The application of this herbicide chemical is time consuming and expensive; and can only be administered at certain times of the year when the plant growth is vigorous and when the absorption rate of these chemicals by the bush is high.

Having explained this let me add that Ingwelala does in fact have a management program for manual bush clearing. The areas identified for clearing on our reserve are aimed to link up with one another over a period of time.

While conceding on the point that our resources are limited and that the progress being made is slow we are currently benefiting via an agreement of co-operative conservation management with our neighbours where the grassland areas of the reserves are planned to link up with each other.

Ingwelala's conservation budget has been increased from R55300 to R105720 (last year to current) and R30000 of this has been ear-marked for bush clearing. Along with the bush clearing should go a properly defined veld monitoring system which measures the success and impact that the clearing is having.

In this respect I am pleased to advise that we are, through our membership of the UPNR, receiving the benefits of the research that is being done by the Agricultural Research Council.

Hiring a bus to bring in 30 or so labourers for about three weeks each year would present its own problems and we have chosen not to pursue this option. As we cannot accommodate these workers they would have to enter and leave the reserve every day. There are also other issues such as worker training, cutting tools, supervision, feeding, security (theirs and ours), safety and third party liability that would all need to be considered. The outsourcing of this type of work to a bush clearing contractor has been considered. Finding such a contractor is difficult; and finding the exorbitant contract fees is just as difficult.

My conclusion, which is shared by Ingwelalas Conservation Committee, is that the land area being cleared with our available manpower and financial resources is acceptable at this stage. Until the water provision and animal stocking rates are analysed and adequately understood, the opening up of larger grassland areas more speedily could have negative consequences for Ingwelala. We have been advised by the UPNR, following their aerial census of 2007, that we have too many impalas on our reserve and that a culling program needs to be implemented. The creation of more grassland areas would certainly be welcomed by these animals. But then, they would surely multiply and would we be faced with exactly the same over-population problem a few years from now.

Your suggestion that we should aim to treble the existing grassland area within the next 25 years is therefore one that needs to be thought through very carefully.

I hope that my input above will be of interest to you and I hope that you will understand why we have adopted a cautious attitude towards the current bush clearing program.


Kind regards.
John Llewellyn."