A year in the mistbelt

August is a pretty special month here. Both Connor and I have birthdays, but it’s also 365 days since the website went live and Ferncliffe forest wilding was launched. A male bushbuck has already sprouted horns by the time it turns one, but we feel more like a one-year-old real yellowwood – still but a smudge of feathery leaves. Somewhat delicate and all too close to the ground!

Still, it’s been the most incredible year. And we have grown, with the help of all sorts of people full of knowledge and enthusiasm. We wish we could teleport you down to see what’s been happening! Here’s one pic to give you a clue:

This area used to be wall-to-wall bamboo, spooky and silent even on a sunny day, and studded with just one or two surviving, but starving trees. Now, for 100 meters in various directions, there is hardly a stick of bamboo to be found, other than some for shade. You can see bamboo ‘pens’—inside each of these an indigenous tree is settling in, relatively safe from bushbuck or other critters.

Here is a picture that gives you an idea of the same area, mid-clearing around a tree:

And another pic to show how thick the bamboo can be!

So, thanks to Kanji Yoshimura of Renewable Houses SA and his team of bamboo clearers, we have space opening up in which we can plant indigenous trees this coming season. So, so satisfying. Last month, Hilton resident and conservationist Philip du Toit of Bateleur was also kind enough to send up a drone to capture the change. Thanks to wind and shadow – and the amount of biomass remaining stacked in the area – getting a 100% accurate idea of how much has been cleared wasn’t possible on this flight. It’s a little more than the roughly 10% shown on this image in green; the purple highlights add some other ‘shorn’ bits.

In terms of the other areas, the Dell has been cleared of huge quantities of Kahili ginger (tops, not all the roots). We’ve left a lot of Inkberry up for shade, and will start thinning this. The area around the Top Dam is also transformed. On two sides, the Bamboo and Mauritius Thorn has been pushed right back and 14 trees are already in the ground. The eastern side will be tackled this month. An additional bonus is that a massive stand of Mauritius Thorn has been largely removed from the area adjacent to the Lower Dam (impossible to see in the drone images, but outlined below in dark blue). This will shape up as a wetland, and some 15 trees have been planted on the edges and in glades within it.  

Progress is slow, but it’s real! And every week we inch forward.

Watch our Instagram and Facebook feeds for more images depicting progress during August, or see the Progress page on Ferncliffe.org.

For those who love people progress, here is an ethereal shot of Vusumuzi Mlangeni, the first of our Forest Guardians. He helps with everything you can imagine; we’d love him to tackle a decent research or propagation project too. We just need to get some funding in.

What has been amazing over the past couple of months is to get to know more Maritzburgers keen to get stuck in. We held a successful hack on World Environment Day. (As Actors for the UN Decade on Restoration, we wanted to draw attention to this day of much-needed collective action for the planet, themed #OnlyOneEarth.) Residents (yay!) and some off-duty SANParks Honorary Rangers joined us with axes and pangas, as did a team of Groen Sebenza interns led by Zukiswa Zulu from the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment at Midmar Dam. You should have seen the Lantana chips fly … A whole new corridor has been opened up. Two more volunteer events were held around Mandela Day with Africa Media Online and NCT Forestry: Thank you people. And the Silent Nature Husqvarna chainsaw and brushcutters have been invaluable.

It’s difficult to say if we’ve had any effect on biodiversity just yet. Too much follow-up still needs to be done, and early successes can’t be claimed too soon. Most of the snake lilies that emerged last spring were eaten before flowering, for example. And removing aliens has affected cover and available food in places. Still, our large mammals are definitely present, leaving gifts of ready-made compost behind. We have caught a genet on the camera trap, identified otter scat, and seen evidence of vlei rats and water mongoose. A striated (green-backed) heron is a new sighting at the Top Dam, but there have been fewer raptor sightings than we recall from six years ago. We believe in change, slow as it may be. We have a far better understanding of tree species present, and are working at filling in any gaps in our knowledge. And to see seeds push through soil, or saplings send up new shoots in the shade houses, is pure joy every time.

Still, turning one is not just about celebration. We are an NGO. We need to make a difference on a larger scale as the world is scalded anew each summer, and floods increase in intensity. Ferncliffe is a refuge for happy things like mountain biking or birdwatching, and so it should be. But it’s a refuge under pressure, and the larger and healthier it is, the better for the health of us all. Please consider helping financially – planting or adopting a tree is a gift to every person and creature on the planet.

Thank you so much to all of you who have helped us get here!

Connor & Janine