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Notes from a rangeland ecologist in the Eastern Cape's highland grasslands

Having grown up as part-time herds boy in the grasslands around Bizana close to the Eastern Cape coast, where the winter’s grass remains green and the temperature warm, I was amazed at the harsh differences in the weather and flora in the highland grasslands landscape where I now live and work.

© Nthabeliseni Munyai / SANParks / WWF South Africa
Lumko Mboyi exploring the mountainous Eastern Cape grasslands on a biodiversity-mapping field trip.

Today, as a project coordinator with WWF South Africa, my outdoor office lies in the area of Nqanqarhu (formerly Maclear) close to the southern border of Lesotho. This is also close to where a novel grassland national park is in the process of being established.

It is a landscape with two distinct seasons: a deep, icy winter and a vibrant, bright summer. This stark contrast in temperatures makes for a unique ecosystem where many special plants and animals thrive! 

© WWF South Africa / Lumko Mboyi
Festive Red Tiger Butterfly (Brephos festiva) pollinating wild daisies in the Eastern Cape highland grasslands.
When winter is coming

The winter months are characterised by chimneys with bellowing smoke as people try to keep warm indoors. Sheep, one of the most dominant livestock in this area, stay warm in their fluffy wool coats. The grasses go into a deep sleep, turning brown as they hide away all their important nutrients in their roots during the winter, in anticipation of warmer temperatures in the summer months.

© WWF South Africa / Angus Burns
The Drakensberg Mountains in the Eastern Cape highlands often get snow in the winter.
When summer is coming

As the days grow longer and the temperatures warmer, the changes in elements are enough to make you think you have travelled into a completely different landscape. The bellowing smoke gradually turns into clear blue skies. As summer approaches, the brown and dull grasslands begin to reveal vibrant and floral colours once again, adding lush greens from indigenous grasses and broad-leafed forbs (herbaceous plants) to fruity yellows and pinks from proteas and flowering bulbs. The landscape starts to show off what it has been hiding during the icy winter!

As the weather warms up, it marks the start of the shearing season when the sheep lose their winter coats and their wool is shipped off to market by the local farmers. 

© WWF South Africa / Lumko Mboyi
The high-altitude Eastern Cape grasslands receive good rainfall in summer, from November to February.
Into the Drakensberg we go

Summer in the Drakensberg is an exciting time for any plant enthusiast. It brings with it an opportunity to explore the variety of what the grasslands have to offer. As a rangeland ecologist, I would be out in the mountains every day if time permitted. While exploration in the wet summer season does come with the risk of getting stuck (if you don’t have a 4x4 or two to pull you out of muddy patches), the bad comes with the good and that is what makes it even more exciting. 

© WWF South Africa / Lumko Mboyi
Lumko Mboyi with WWF and SANParks colleagues in the mountains of the Eastern Cape Drakensberg.
So much more than grass

As an ecosystem, grasslands in South Africa are grossly overlooked and largely under-protected. To many people it appears to be “just grass” but to a rangeland enthusiast like me, there is more to the grass than meets the eye. There are sweetgrasses, sour grasses and aromatic grasses. There are soft grasses, there are tough grasses. There are beautiful bright forbs and colourful bulbs and much more diversity in every patch of “just grass”.

This variety and diversity support important insect and animal life, as well as ecosystem processes and food production in the grasslands. Processes such as soil protection and water retention are also essential to a healthy landscape. And the presence of healthy grasslands means rural residents can rear cattle and sheep. So, our grasses are not “just grass”, they are a rich ecosystem that supports life, livelihoods and natural processes that humans and animals need to thrive.

© WWF South Africa / Lumko Mboyi
Young merino rams with their first wool coats, within a pale-brown winter grassland and a pair of grey crowned cranes in the background.
A project to benefit farmers, retailers, consumers and nature

For one of the projects I am working on, WWF has partnered with the H&M Group to help sheep farmers manage their livestock and wool production in a more sustainable manner. In turn, this will mean they are able to supply local and sustainably sourced wool.

Through this project, the local farmers also work with the WWF team to monitor biodiversity, veld conditions and soil health, as well as remove water-hungry invasive alien plants. 

© WWF South Africa / Lumko Mboyi
A flowering endemic Euphorbia species making its contribution to biodiversity within the dominant grasses.
All in a day’s work for a rangeland ecologist

The impacts of improved land management practices need to be monitored and that is where the fun begins for the rangeland ecologist.

The summer months are the ideal time for us to identify and understand the diversity of plants that occur within these high-altitude grasslands. These are assessed through vegetation surveys, using mobile-based “GIS applications” to capture their specific locations for further monitoring.

While doing vegetation surveys, we also do soil sampling and water assessments to monitor the soil health and water quality in the local rivers. Another critical component we measure is soil bulk density, to estimate the amount of carbon stored in the soil. This measurement is a critical determining factor in whether the above-ground interventions contribute to increased soil carbon storage, thereby helping to mitigate climate change.

Our monitoring efforts are done in partnership with Conservation South Africa which has developed a science-based M&E toolkit for rangelands in the region.

© Nthabeliseni Munyai / SANParks / WWF South Africa
Rethabile Nthoba and Mpume Tenza from Conservation South Africa (back and left) conduct a soil carbon assessment with Lumko Mboyi (front right).
Important for people and nature

The Eastern Cape highlands, specifically the Southern Drakensberg Mountains close to Lesotho, are a unique economic area for agriculture, as well as containing critical grasslands biodiversity and a strategic water source area which provides water for millions of downstream users.

The work of the WWF-H&M partnership and the rangeland ecologist is to ensure that there is a balance between agricultural production, water resource protection and biodiversity conservation.

Through this partnership, the project will generate several baseline databases related to all these natural components, while empowering farmers through participatory approaches and training to monitor beyond their kraals and to see their contribution to the interconnected grassland life-support system.

Lumko Mboyi Photo
Lumko Mboyi, Project Coordinator: Regenerative wool project

Lumko is a conservation ecology professional with a passion for finding solutions that integrate people and nature for sustainability


Read more about the regenerative wool projects where WWF is involved in the grasslands.