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Big wins for grasslands protection in Eastern Cape

Protected area expansion is gathering momentum in the Eastern Cape Drakensberg

The landmark, 4 400 ha Balloch Protected Environment (PE) in the Wartrail area of the Barkly East within the Joe Gqabi district is celebrating its first anniversary – and several more landowners are entering into stewardship arrangements.

These moves are taking place in an area close to where a new Grasslands National Park is in the making, helping to bring more of the poorly protected Southern Drakensberg’s grasslands into conservation within a strategic water source area.

Landowners in this biodiverse and water-rich area are voluntarily committing their land to stewardship agreements through arrangements with Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA) and partners, such as WWF South Africa.

Potentially adding to the 4 400 ha of the Balloch PE are three nearby properties – Avoca, Glencoe and Reedsdell – which could add a further 7 000 ha either in the form of PEs and/or nature reserves. Notices for intention to declare were recently published in the Eastern Cape’s provincial gazette.

Stewardship agreements allow landowners to continue to derive income from their land through farming activities while committing to environmental management plans for areas rich in biodiversity. There are different levels of formal protection, namely national park, nature reserve and protected environment.

The Balloch PE, which has been home to the Frost family for four generations, is in the vicinity of Wartrail, a stunningly beautiful part of the country which derives its name from the many battles between cattle raiding parties of King Moshesh and the Xhosa people in the 19th century. It lies along the Vloeikraalspruit River, straddling the Witteberg and Balloch mountains, close to the Lesotho border and is described as a valley with a thousand views.

“It really is a dramatic valley,” says livestock farmer Paul Frost. “The scenery is quite unique with incredible sandstone formations that are framed by towering basalt mountains. We have lots of high- altitude grasslands, wetlands, and an abundance of water year-round – every couple of hundred metres there’s a natural stream that originates and flows from the Balloch mountains.”

Balloch and other properties fall within a priority area for the Eastern Cape’s Protected Area Expansion Strategy, warranting protection not only for biodiversity but also from a hydrological perspective because of the many seeps and rivers that rise here.

Apart from the scenery, the Balloch PE is a haven for threatened, endangered and vulnerable species of conservation concern, among them bearded and Cape vultures which breed in the basalt rock formations, and mammals, such as the endangered reedbuck which is threatened as a result of habitat loss. There are also five special rock art sites at Balloch – featuring lions, chasing figures and eland and offering a window into the lives of the early hunter gatherers who once called these mountains home.

Paul explains that his father and grandfather both had a leaning towards conservation and so looking after the environment was “always high on the family priority list”. Initially, the family decided to apply for PE status to see how things went. They are now considering an even higher level of protection as a nature reserve.

Being declared a PE means that Balloch has agreed to implement a protected area management plan as an effort towards improved farming management and biodiversity conservation. The Balloch PE’s aim is to protect and restore the grasslands and associated aquatic resources, conserve threatened species and apply appropriate livestock stocking rates and fire regimes that promote sustainable land use management practices.

For WWF’s Thembanani Nsibande the Balloch declaration was a huge achievement. He is charged with leading the establishment of the proposed Grasslands National Park and previously facilitated the protected area expansion work with the ECPTA with Balloch being among the first properties he engaged with during his time there.

He commented: “I would like to commend and hugely appreciate the Balloch landowners. They were the first landowners ECPTA engaged with in 2017 and everybody in this region is following in their footsteps. This makes this declaration very close to my heart and the Frost family the champions of the protected area expansion work in the Wartrail area. Without Balloch’s support in agreeing to participate, the biodiversity stewardship programme wouldn’t have gained as much traction as it has in this region.”

Balloch PE was also among the properties surveyed during a mini BioBlitz event this year using the iNaturalist platform for data collection and species identification. This event was organised by WWF in partnership with SANParks, ECPTA, the Department of Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEDEAT) and the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), supported by local nature enthusiasts.

Vathiswa Zikishe who is leading the SANBI’s CREW programme within the Eastern Cape explains that the objective of these surveys is to ensure the conservation of significant sites for threatened plant species, through collaboration with local land stewardship initiatives and conservation agencies. Using a conservation planning tool for modeling species niches and distribution, SANBI has identified the Eastern Cape Drakensberg as an area that should form part of a “both national and provincial Protected Area Expansion Strategies”.

ECPTA extended its special thanks to the Frost Family for believing in this initiative to conserve biodiversity on their land for present and future generations. In so doing, their leading role has opened opportunities for other landowners to take collective action for not only conserving biodiversity but also ensuring sustainable farming in a productive landscape.

This initiative was initially funded by the UNDP SANParks GEF-5 Project in partnership with ECPTA and is currently funded by the WWF South Africa and the WWF Nedbank Green Trust in partnership with ECPTA.

The Balloch Protected Environment falls within a dramatic mountain landscape which is rich in both water and biodiversity.

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