Visiting the most threatened habitats on earth
“Hello my name is Robbie and I am a proteaholic. It’s not really helped by the fact that my boyfriend has P.O.C.D. (protea obsessive compulsive disorder) too. I can’t help it. I just can’t get enough of the proteaceae! It all started as a child, as these things often do…” – An excerpt from a blog post by Robbie Blackhall-Miles, a plantsman and conservationist in North Wales, and founder of FossilPlants, a conservation endeavour which he describes as “the home of our prehistoric garden in North Wales”. Most of the plants in the FossilPlants garden are from families that have a fossil record dating back to between 360 and 60 million years ago or they have their ancestry rooted firmly, somewhere deep in the earth’s prehistory. Robbie grows a variety of proteas at FossilPlants, sourced from the Western Cape and other places in the Southern Hemisphere.
Here is an article (lightly edited) that he wrote on 28 August 2018, at the start of the Global Partnership for Plant Conservation (GPPC) conference at Kirstenbosch (http://www.plants2020.net/gppc/) which he attended as a FossilPlants representative:
‘The proteas of South Africa are flagships for conservation in a country which holds a whopping 6% of the world’s plant diversity. Our own conservation work deals with the species that are found high up in the mountains of the Western Cape of South Africa and in particular a vegetation type called Altimontain Fynbos (both the western form and the Swartberg form) which occurs at altitudes of around 2000m and is a tiny and fragmented habitat type with a range of unique Proteaceae species such as Leucadendron dregei, Protea montana, Protea rupicola, Protea scolopendriifolia, Protea venusta, Spatalla confuse, Protea effusa, Protea scabriuscula, Spatalla incurva and Protea punctata. Whilst the plants of this habitat have proven difficult to cultivate in the low altitude botanic gardens of South Africa we are having some success with them here in cool mountains of North Wales and we are lucky to have many of them in our care. We are working, as part of the ‘proteas With Altitude’ project, to understand the unique requirements of these southern alpine species of protea in cultivation and to create protocols for their ex-situ conservation and restoration. The main threat to these species is that of climate change; their mountain top homes are getting warmer and seeing more frequent fires. With nowhere higher to go and very small areas of occupancy many of these species are threatened with extinction in the wild.
It is not, however, the wonderful high-altitude fynbos I came here to write about.
In December 2017, during our second ‘mountain fynbos’ collecting trip, we took some time to step out of our comfort zone to visit some of the most threatened vegetation types and plant species on earth. Our friend, Rupert Koopman (CapeNature’s [only] botanist) and his colleague, Chanel Rampartab, CapeNature ecologist, had invited us to join them as they spent a day working in the Southern Overberg.
What we saw that day shocked us to the very core. The trip took us far out of our comfort zone and into the front line of plant conservation in South Africa. It allowed us to see for ourselves the difficulties faced in marrying the preservation of the area’s high botanical diversity with the needs of the people.
The Overberg, the bread basket of South Africa, is an area of land stretching from the Hottentots Holland in the west, across to the Breede river in the east and incorporates the Kogelberg Biosphere Reserve, A UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its UNESCO heritage status is due to the high levels of floral diversity found in the region and certainly the mountain areas form the heart of the Cape Floral Kingdom (the world’s smallest floral kingdom).
The area is split between rolling Mediterranean lowlands which produce large quantities of both grain and fruit and high mountainous areas which have cool wet winters and warm, windy summers. The geology and climate lend themselves to the occurrence of multiple different vegetation types.
Our first stop….
Species of protea are not normally associated with alkaline soils, so it was interesting to see the habitat in which Protea susannae, a Near Threatened species, grows. Protea susannae is one of the more widely grown protea species within the gardens of the UK and Europe. Whilst it is not a particularly frost hardy species it is adaptable to soils with a higher ph. thus making it easier to cultivate. Our overriding feeling of limestone fynbos was the very different foliage colour palette; a healthy, vibrant green that stood out against an almost beige background. It took the ability to look deeper into the habitat to realise that although many of the leaves looked very similar you were looking at a multitude of different species from a multitude of genera and families.
The road from the Limestone Fynbos to our next port of call took us through Grootbos Nature Reserve and close to the famous Flower Valley Conservation Trust, a farm where fynbos is sustainably harvested for the cut flower industry. We headed to an area where Rupert had been told that a large tract of vegetation had been cleared to make way for vineyards. On arriving at this area of ecotonal Overberg Sandstone Fynbos and Elim Ferricrete Fynbos the report proved to be correct and the reality faced for conservation in the lowland areas of South Africa became immediately apparent.
Just very small areas of natural vegetation remained on the margins of what was a very large area of ploughed land. Having confirmed the report, we moved on to see an area of Ferricrete Fynbos on the edge of a road. This area was home to one of the remaining populations of Leucadendron elimense ssp. elimense, a species that has seen a 50% decline, due to crop cultivation, in the past 60 years. To travel directly from an area of destroyed habitat to a species so heavily affected by habitat loss made a stark point. The ferricrete soils overlying ironstone gravels make for fertile land in a country where soil nutrients are few and far between. With a growing population, South Africa must play a fine balancing act between crop production and species conservation.
Moving on, we stopped again at an area of ecotonal ferricrete/sandstone fynbos so that we could get an understanding of what had been lost at the earlier vineyard site. It was immediately obvious that the level of biodiversity lost at the vineyard was irreplaceable. The patchwork of small pockets of different vegetation types, each dominated by a different range of species, that graded into one another is very difficult to describe. One moment you are amongst scrubby, silvery vegetation and the next among a firework display of reds, oranges and yellows. This display became even more evident as we entered the Agulhas National Park.
Again, stopping at the side of a road we stepped out of the car to find ourselves in a new habitat altogether. The Overberg Sandstone Fynbos we had just entered challenged any habitat we had previously seen for the level of diversity it held. This tapestry of vibrant and unusual plant species against a sandy soil gave the impression of a megadiverse coral reef. Leucospermum truncatulatum, Mimetes cucculatus, Serruria elongata and Aulax umbellata (all Proteaceae) were the main players amongst a cast of innumerable other species. This area was younger than the areas of Sandstone Fynbos we had encountered in the ecotonal area and many of its species were flowering for the first time since its last burn. This youth and freshness gave the whole area a kaleidoscopic feel and we were lucky to have an experienced Cape botanist with us to identify the many species that would have otherwise left us stumped.
Heading off from this perfect example of Overberg Sandstone Fynbos we went on to see another example of Elim Ferricrete Fynbos; this time on the outskirts of the village that gives it its name.
Geelkop Nature Reserve is owned and managed by the Elim community and is a prime example of how community engagement and involvement can make a difference in habitat conservation. This small reserve forms an island, among the vast expanse of agriculture in the area, that acts as a refuge to several threatened Proteaceae species such as Protea pudens, Protea aspera, Paranomus abrotanifolius and Leucospermum heterophyllum. Unfortunately, there are other small islands of Elim Ferricrete Fynbos dotted around the area that will not find themselves as lucky as Geelkop.
Our final stop of the day was a privately owned nature reserve on a mountain called Akkedisberg. Owned and managed by the surrounding area’s farmer, this land sported a host of Overberg Sandstone Fynbos species alongside a handful of mountain specific species. Whilst the Proteaceae on this mountain were species we had come across in multiple places on our travels of the day we also found many plants that we had not seen before such as the vivid blue Pseudoselago pulchra (Scrophulariaceae). Whilst the habitat and flora of this mountain was special, the real point of visiting was for the vantage point it gave to look out across the Agulhas plains. The view was once a network of intricately woven habitats and was now a virtual monoculture of farmed arable land.
People say ‘What a difference a day makes’ and on this occasion the adage could not have been truer. In the most floristically diverse region of the world occur some of the most threatened habitat types on earth too. The three that we visited are just some of the many threatened vegetation types in South Africa.
Sixty-five of the 163 vegetation types found in the Western Cape Province (64% of which are endemic to the WCP) are threatened with extinction. South Africa as a whole has 2842 threatened plant species.
If we had started the day with a desire to conserve the plant life of the Cape Floral Kingdom, we finished it with a feeling of desperation and urgency.