Gondwana Living

Gondwana’s Home Owner Blog

December 1, 2017

Fynbos, Renosterveld and Fire

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Gondwana comprises of Fynbos and Rensoterveld areas. Both Fynbos and Rensosterveld are critically endangered biomes with, renosterveld being close to extinction. These biomes have a fascinating relationship with fire and their plant richness relies heavily on this element. In this post I will focus predominantly on Fynbos as the factors that affect Renosterveld are similar and affect Renosterveld in the same way.

There is an intricate relationship between fire and Fynbos and the cycles between burns determine the health and the sustainability of this extremely precious biome. On Gondwana Game Reserve, every time our Reserve Manager, Joe plans to burn a block my heart leaps with excitement as for months to come there will be a new landscape to explore with new plants germinating weekly – sometimes daily!

Fynbos can be described as fire-loving or pyrophylic as it is dominated by plants that have adapted to fire.

Naturally fire can occur in intervals of 10 to 30 years. Some fynbos plants survive fire by re-sprouting however many are in fact killed and survive in the form of seeds. Fynbos plants have a highly evolved way of producing fire-resistant seeds. Seeds can survive in the canopy of plants, such as non-sprouting proteaceae. Other species have fascinating ways of storing their seeds in seed stores underground. Germination of the seed is stimulated directly by heat or smoke, and indirectly by altered environmental conditions. Other plant species also called re-sprouters can germinate from woody underground root stock that is stimulated to sprout by fire.

Fire acts as a wonderful mineralizing agent for our nutrient poor soils. The ash left by fire returns valuable minerals that were previously held above ground by the plants, back to the soil. Although a burnt landscape looks barren and “dead”, it ensures that water, nutrients, and light are more available after a burn which is important to rejuvenate soil otherwise considered to be nutrient poor. We could assume that the fire stimulated germination that Fynbos is renowned for could be an evolutionary reaction to an increase in the availability of nutrients and resources and the lack of competition after fire. Fire certainly enhances the bio-diversity of fynbos. Many bulbs and shrubs cannot compete with masses of overgrown Fynbos and may remain dormant for years until a fire clears the landscape and makes space for them to grow.

The relationship between fire and fynbos is a delicate cycle. There are factors such as fire frequency, location, season, and intensity will determine the positive or negative affect that fire may have on Fynbos.

Fire that occurs too frequently can destroy seedbanks and plants before they have a chance to drop their seeds. It can take up to seven years after a fire for some plants to mature enough to produce seed. Frequent fires can reduce biodiversity, cause erosion and death or migration of important pollinators and predators. In general fires should occur between 10-15 years to ensure specie richness, however it is better to determine this by examining the veld. When 50% of the population of the slowest growing species within a given area has flowered for at least 3 consecutive seasons, then this is a good time to burn.

Location plays a factor in determining when fynbos should be burnt, and this is largely dictated by aspect and the climatic and rainfall cycles of a given area. Fynbos that is situated in moist mountain and lowland areas should burn every 12 to 20 years. Fynbos in arid areas should only burn approximately every 25 years. These conditions determine the rate of growth and this directly affects when the Fynbos should be burnt.

Fynbos burnt in different seasons is affected differently. The season generally determine the intensity of the fire. Naturally most fires occur in summer. Fynbos plants seem to produce the most seedlings after late summer and early autumn fires. However extremely hot summer fires can destroy seed stores whereas cooler fires can promote germination. Seasonal fires affect the diverse species of fynbos differently. Bulbs survive fire is burnt in the right season. Burning them in winter or spring when they are pushing out their leaves or flowering can cause irreversible damage.

The presence of alien vegetation can also increase the intensity of a fire. Alien vegetation can hold highly flammable oils. This together with the concentration of it’s biomass can create more intense fires.

There is no doubt that fire is critical in the sustainability and the promotion of biodiversity in Fynbos (and Renosterveld). However, the intervals between fire need to be managed carefully and monitored as although fynbos has adapted to surviving fires, there are many species that will become extinct should fires occur too frequently.

Text: Raquel de Castro Maia

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December 1, 2017

Home Owner Profile – Christa Van Rensburg

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1. What brought you to Gondwana?
Red Rocks used to be our farm and I was initially very sad that Gerrit decided to sell it to become part of Gondwana. Most of my favourite Fynbos species grow in the area for example Protea cynaroides, Mimetis, Erica cerinthoides (rooi haarjie),”and other Protea species, like Coronata,”that one cannot find on Fontein Wes (Our home farm), hence my heavy heart to let go of Red Rocks. Our family is very fond of nature and wildlife and thus when given the opportunity to be a part of Mark and Wendy’s dream, we immediately bought into it.

2. What is your favourite species on the reserve?
This question is extremely difficult to answer. Every species is special and unique. I enjoy and admire the antics of the tiny Chameleon to the splendour of majestic Elephant and Lion, the elegant Giraffe and not forgetting the Zebras, Blue Wildebeest and the buck in all their playfulness and beauty. Our family are all also avid birdwatchers, but my biggest love of all will have to be Fynbos.

3. What has been your funniest/scariest/craziest/most interesting moment on the Reserve.
I will never forget the first time we got woken up, not by our alarms, but by the mighty roar of the Lion pride close to our home. It literally felt like an earthquake…what a memory!

4. What do you do for a living?
I used to be a”Primary School Teacher, Foundation phase, and today “Gerrit and I are” both Pensioners doing all the things we love, like travelling and other hobbies and interests and spending time with our family.

5. What is your favorite food?
My favourite food: Green bean stew and lamb shank.

6. Do you have any hobbies?
You can usually find me in my garden, but I love to do flower arrangements, going for a walk (in nature of course), bird watching and photography too.

7. Tell us about your family?
Gerrit and I have been married for 43 years and have been blessed with beautiful children and grandchildren. Our eldest, Helena, is married to Danie Smuts and they have two energetic children, Johannes and Christi, who both also love being in nature. They farm in the Wolseley-district. Maartin lives in George and is successfully running his own cycling business and our youngest, Alex, farms on our farm, Fontein-Wes. We are a proud Afrikaans family and utilise every opportunity to spend time together as family.

8. What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about the protection of vulnerable children and elderly people.

9. What is your favorite spot on the reserve?
Anywhere between the Fynbos, and in the Nouga during Autumn months when the Nerinas are in bloom.

10. Do you have a nickname?
No nickname, just Christa, ma, ouma”and tannie.

Interview: Nadine Clarke

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December 1, 2017

The Cape Sugarbird

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The Cape Sugarbird is a common sight, seen fluttering above the Fynbos of Gondwana Game Reserve. Not only does this bird signify one of the Magnificent 8 birds in this region (which are sought after by bird watchers across the world) but it also has many interesting characteristics.

The sugarbirds are easily recognizable by a spot of yellow under their tail and the very long tail feathers present in males. The male is 34–44 cm long, and the shorter-tailed, shorter-billed, and paler breasted female 25–29 cm long. The males have an impressive flight display flying up 9-16m into the air and whipping the tail up and down.

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They are locally common and move around in response to food availability. They are strongly dependent on protea nectar and can visit up to 300 flowers to meet their energy needs. This makes them the most effective pollinator of proteas more so than the sunbirds. There have been records of the sugarbirds probing colourful pegs on washing lines in the hope of accessing some nectar! They also catch large invertebrates often killing them with a quick sideways slap against a branch.

They pair up for life and aggressively defend their territory. Although they will tolerate some birds in their “turf”, they strongly repel the common fiscal and the southern boubou shrike. There has been a record of the male knocking out a Fiscal shrike.

The female can usually be found building her cup shaped nest in the protea thicket where 1-2 eggs are laid. Most of the breeding takes place in winter closely correlated with the flowering proteas.

Text: Nadine Clarke

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December 1, 2017

Controlled Burning at Gondwana

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Why do we undertake controlled burning?

Joe :  “We do controlled burning for two purposes. For the vegetation / conservation management of the reserve and for fire protection for all infrastructure. 

On the vegetation front, we know that Fynbos needs to burn approximately every seven years for regeneration purposes and some Fynbos can even burn every four years. The older the veld gets, the less productive it becomes and is under utilized. Our objective of burning these blocks is to increase animal veld utilization around Gondwana. At the moment our highest concentration of animals is on the central plains around gate 2. We would like to utilize the rest of the reserve and burning promotes grazing as well as looking after the Fynbos.

From a safety perspective our focus is to protect the infrastructure on Gondwana. Blocks are burnt according to the threat of runaway fires in differing seasons. At the moment our biggest threat in summer is the hot northerly winds and the prevailing south easterly. The current burn of the north eastern blocks protect us from the northerly winds and plans are underway for blocks to be burnt for protection from the South Easterly 

 

How is controlled burning done?

 Joe: “It starts with thorough preparation. Firstly fire breaks need to be made using the bulldozer as well as mowing to prevent the fire from jumping into another areas.  The blocks are also burnt in sequence so that the fire can move into an already burnt area and die out to increase safety, so the first block is always the most important one. Then depending on the winds we can then decide which block we would like to burn next as it is already a lot safer.

Second, the local Municipality is called in to do an inspection on the fire breaks, give advice and a fire permit is issued which is valid for 30 days.

Third, the Fire Index needs to be monitored.  The fire department monitors this index to assess a favorable day to burn. This is dependent on the wind direction, the humidity, the ambient temperature and the fire-load. The fire index has color codes for different risk levels. On a blue, green and yellow day we can burn, on an orange or red day we may not.

We then assemble the team. The 4×4 fire truck which can hold 2500 litres of water, the Hilux water truck with a1000 litres capacity as well as backpacks and blowers to direct and kill the fire. Around 25 ground staff are available to assist with the fire. We also have a helicopter on standby with a water bucket.

What is important to remember is we will always burn away from any infrastructure. 

If there are animals in the block in which we would like to burn, we leave a corridor open for them to escape. We can also use the helicopter to nudge them along if need be.’

 

What are your future plans for controlled burning at Gondwana?

Joe: “Our plan is to burn roughly 2500 to 3000 hectares per year over the next 3 years.  This year we have not been able to do this due to the drought conditions. Normally if you light a fire around midday, the fire dies out in the evening due to the moisture in the plants. This is not the case at the moment because the vegetation is so dry. At the moment we need to be very careful about what and when we burn. 

The plan for next year is to burn the “Trees loop” area of around 1500 hectares on the North Western part of the reserve. We also need to constantly identify threats from neighboring farmers and burn blocks accordingly. As much as we don’t enjoy burning its essential to manage the safety risks and is an important part of reserve management”

 

Interview conducted by Nadine Clarke. 

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December 1, 2017

Leucospermum cordifolium, the ants and the fire

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Looking at the importance of fire and the ecological Fynbos cycles that benefit from it, Leucospermum cordifolium is reliant on fire to germinate its seed and in turn produce new plants.

Leucospermum cordifolium has a fascinating ecology. The flowers produce sweet nectar that attracts insects and birds. Sugar birds and sun birds feed on the nectar and the insects that they find on the plants. To get to get to the nectar the birds must stick their heads deep into the flower and pollen brushes off onto the back of their heads. Pollination occurs as the birds travel from flower to flower transferring pollen. Baboons also love the nut-like seeds found at the centre of each flower and so the plants are a good source of protein for baboons too.

The leaves of Leucospermum cordifolium have nectar producing glands or swellings at the tip of each tooth on the leaf. These glands secret nectar which in turn feeds the ants that visit and protect the plant from pests.

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Each flower produces only a few hard nut-like seeds that are covered in a sweet whitish coating which ants love. Some Leucospermum seeds release a pheromone that attract the ants. The seeds are harvested by the ants and dragged underground into their nests which become underground seed stores. As a reward for safe guarding the seeds the ants relish the whitish coating and devour it once the seeds have been stored.

This production of seed by the plant and storage of seed by the ants occurs for years between fire cycles. The seeds will not germinate until the next fire. The mature plant of Leucospermum cordifolium dies completely when fire occurs, and its nutrients are returned to the soil. The seeds survive underground thanks to their relationship with the ants. The smoke and the fire promote germination of the seeds. And the entire cycle repeats itself again.

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Text & Photographs: Raquel de Castro Maia

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