– Tim Attwell

The chainsaws had been at it all morning. The ‘plot clearing’ contractor’s crew was taking no prisoners. So I went to see what was going on.

Reducing the fuel load and fire risk on a vacant plot makes sense. The Overstrand Fire Department is justly praised for their heroism when wildfire breaks out and for their vigilance before it does.

Unmanaged, overgrown plots pose a fire hazard
Unmanaged, overgrown plots pose a fire hazard

Part of that vigilance involves notifying property owners when their plots constitute a fire hazard. And there are a lot of them. Some sport masses of alien invasive species waiting to burn, especially Rooikrans (Acacia cyclops) and Spider Gum (Eucalyptus conferruminata).

Other plots, not so much. What these other plots in our area do have is Overberg Dune Strandveld, aka Coastal Thicket with its multiple species of bird friendly small trees and large shrubs, or vulnerable Hangklip Sand Fynbos, home to orchids such as near threatened Satyrium carneum or endangered Satyrium hallackii, which have the conservation status of the White Rhino (Ceratotherium simum) and the Black Rhino (Diceros bicornis) respectively. You don’t mess with them.

Satyrium carneum, at home in Hangklip Sand Fynbos, has the same conservation status as the White Rhino.

It’s true, some tretches of Overberg Dune Strandveld do become overgrown and senesce (get old and moribund). And it’s also true that Hangklip Sand Fynbos becomes dense when it reaches the climax stage in the process of plant succession, especially Leucadendron, Passerina and Metalasia species. Their moribund plant material provides prodigious fuel for wildfires while suppressing the growth of geophytes such as Satyrium and Gladiolus and many Erica species.

The Fire Department is right to warn property owners that their neglected plots pose a fire hazard and require them to reduce the fuel load. Vacant plots have to be managed or wildfire will do it for them. Or an ill informed contractor’s crew will destructively oblige at the bidding of the Fire Department and the landowner’s expense.

The work of a plot clearing crew that takes no prisoners.
The work of a plot clearing crew that takes no prisoners.

Here’s the rub. Many contractors’ crews are not conservationists or veld managers and don’t have the knowledge or skill to differentiate between alien invasive and indigenous species. Nor do they have the skill to control alien invasive species with the appropriate methods. The directions given by the Fire Department to landowners are lost on many a contractor and crew, specifically to ‘reduce all grass and invasive vegetation to a maximum height of 300mm’ and see to the ‘thinning of excess growth in order that it does not cover more than 50% of the area’.

In any case, the economics of plot clearing demands that a crew go in fast, cut indiscriminately to ground level and get the debris to the waste disposal site as quickly as possible before moving to the next job. Conservation minded veld management is not their forte.

Candlewood, Pterocelastrus tricuspidatus, coming into flower as the plot clearing crew approaches.

I picked over the casualties of the plot clearing contractor’s ‘blitzkrieg’, wondering if the landowner has any idea what he or she has lost. Among the casualties were multiple specimens of: Candlewood (Pterocelastrus tricuspidatus), Sea Guarrie (Euclea racemosa), Glastee (Cliffortia ferruginea), Glossy currant/Blinktaaibos (Searsia lucida), Dune crowberry (Searsia crenata), Dune currant/Duinetaaibos (Searsia laevigata), Coast cabbage tree (Cussonia thyrsiflora), Oak leaf waxberry (Morella quercifolia), Bietou (Osteospermum moniliferum), Cape sumach (Osyris compressa), Gonnabos (Passerina corymbosa), Blombos (Metalasia muricata) and a few crumpled specimens of the pretty geophyte, Lepelblom (Gladiolus cunonius). The plot has lost significant value and a future natural garden, trees, geophytes, birds, Cape grysbok, mongoose and all. Chances are invasive Rooikrans will love it.

Hiding from the onslaught, Lepelblom Gladiolus cunonius
Hiding from the onslaught, Lepelblom Gladiolus cunonius

There has to be a better way. Here are four suggestions:

  1. )Plot owners step up and see to the management of their land before it draws the attention of the Fire Department.
  2. )Check the credentials of the contractor whose crew will ‘clear’ the plot. Specifically, find out if the contractor and crew know the difference between alien invasive and indigenous species. Call in reputable landscape gardening services who are familiar with and care about the local vegetation and who use appropriate methods of alien invasive species control.
  3. )Property owners insist that contractors pay careful attention to the precise instructions of the Fire Department. The FD doesn’t require a ‘scorched earth’ approach. They require that low growing vegetation, specifically grasses and alien invasives be trimmed to a height of 300mm, not mowed to ground level. Admittedly what exactly the ‘excess growth’ that the FD wants trimmed is in the eye of the beholder, but the FD does allow for 50% of the plot to have a cover of larger growth.
  4. )Property owners could have a ‘plant survey’ done of their plots, providing an inventory of the indigenous plants which occur naturally on their properties. At the same time, have their plots surveyed for the presence of alien invasive species. Controlling the alien invasive species and nurturing the naturally occurring plants, especially trees, would add value to the plot while managing fire risk.