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In search of wild treasures

Just over a year ago, in a time before physical distancing, Gareth – a WWF colleague – and I sat in our office kitchen focused on a map of the fruitful Breede River Valley. He shared with me stories of farmers, tourism spots, wineries and micro-breweries and good kids’ activities and play areas in the countryside around Worcester and Robertson.

© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
Just over an hour from Cape Town, Worcester is the ‘capital’ of the Breede River Valley and the first town on the Route 62 towards Robertson, Bonnievale, Montagu and McGregor.
Tales of wild treasure

One of the many delights of the various plant biomes which occur in the Breede River Valley is the Succulent Karoo, rich in semi-desert plant life and a global biodiversity hotspot. This is a landscape of extremes – of soaring heat during the day and often below-zero temperatures at night, of fertile land yet low rainfall and water-adapted local plants such as succulents and aloes.

Besides a wave and quick hello, I hardly get sit-down time with Gareth as he is mostly on the road.

That day we sat together, Gareth spoke with pride and joy about this inland plant paradise. He inspired me to plan a birthday weekend away to explore its treasures! And so, in August last year, we explored the wine-rich Route 62 with a stayover in the quaint village of McGregor, only 20 minutes from Robertson.

Breede pool
© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
One of the Route 62 stops on the Robertson wine route is Graham Beck Wine Estate with its bold architecture, glass-walled tasting room, a mirror pond reflecting the still skies – and views for days.
Straight to the stewardship source

A year later when I wanted to understand the concept of biodiversity stewardship, I knew who to call: my in-field colleague with the title of WWF Stewardship Co-ordinator – Gareth Boothway.

In lockdown, I had to settle for a phone chat. I asked lots of questions, and we spoke for a swift hour as his passion poured through for his conservation work.

I was curious to know the options – and benefits – of stewardship support for landowners.

To my mind, Gareth’s role out in the wild is as a go-between for government conservation partners, NGOs and private landowners. He works mostly in the farming region of the Breede River Valley as well as the Little Karoo, both in the midst of the plant-rich Succulent Karoo biome.

The lay of the land

This part of the valley is a highly productive agricultural landscape. There is pressure on the farmers to expand their business to remain economically viable, which often leads to reduced biodiversity losses through transformation of natural veld. This is understandable and this is where conservation entities need to work together with farmers to minimise this impact whilst supporting landowner livelihoods.

I asked how a landowner knows what is – and isn’t allowed – on their land. A naïve question, maybe. He gave me a clear answer: most landowners are either part of a farmers’ association or an organised agricultural body such as a water users association and hence will know such basics.
The most pertinent law for our conversation is that no ploughing of natural land – or virgin veld – is allowed without obtaining permission from government agencies mandated to undertake this role.

Breede flower
© Julian Slade
One of the many special species found in the Succulent Karoo, this is Freesia marginata or the Breede Valley Kammetjie.
Treasure hunting

We then spoke about ‘biodiversity assessments’ to know where the areas are with the highest levels of biodiversity – because with limited resources, this is where government agencies and NGOs focus their efforts. In addition to the Western Cape’s ‘Biodiversity Spatial Plan’, WWF has recently conducted its own assessments, which among other things, enables WWF to identify biodiversity priorities in the Succulent Karoo.

Gareth went on to contextualise how these biodiversity assessments are done in partnership with what he calls the ‘responsible agencies’. In the Western Cape, this is CapeNature and nationally this would be the South African Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).

As a country, we have national conservation targets for different vegetation types. For a plant lover like me, it is comforting to know there are ambitions at this level. These are contained in the National and Provincial Protected Area Expansion Strategies.

So once WWF and CapeNature know where the floral gems are, that is when Gareth reaches out to the individual landowners with these conservation-critical vegetation types on their properties. I imagine it must be like finding treasure buried in your garden, except it is there in full visual display.

Breede plants
© Carina Becker
Typical veld vegetation found close to Robertson.
In good company

I appreciate the approach Gareth takes of first getting to know the landowner, their business, how they use their land and their land ambition, plus the goals and challenges they experience.

The concept of conservation is not about locking down use of the land. Rather, demarcating untouched conservation-identified areas and deciding how best to maintain its natural state.

This is why this conservation approach is called stewardship: where the owner retains full ownership of the property, and an NGO like WWF becomes a partner for landowners, supporting them in caring for that land. This would include things like establishing effective fire breaks, clearing of invasive alien vegetation and connecting with other like-minded landowners in the area.

Stewardship is about taking care of something shared, that is not technically something we own.

On being good stewards

I imagine Gareth and others who do stewardship work are like the healthy planet and happy people connectors in the landscape. They bring people together around the common good of looking after our communal rivers, considering the wildlife impact in the area and other shared challenges.

Biodiversity stewardship is the official name for the way a landowner can voluntarily say yes to care for their conservation-worthy parts of land. This means they agree to not develop the conservation-zoned land, with no intentions to plough it or pull out indigenous vegetation. This is vital in the semi-desert Succulent Karoo where water wise plants are well suited to these valleys and mountains of below-freezing and above-40°C contrasts.

Stewardship is about taking care of something shared, that it is not technically something we own.

Sue Northam-Ras
© Joan Isham
Pictured here is the heavily-farmed Breede River Valley in the Western Cape.
Stewardship, step by step

I like a good analogy, and as Gareth explained the stewardship options he spoke about a ladder.

So that’s how I picture it: stewardship as a four-step ladder.

From what Gareth told me, to begin with, an open willingness from the landowner is needed. Like most things in life, desire and voluntary choice are crucial.

At the ‘softest’ level of biodiversity stewardship, the first step on the ladder, landowners may opt to voluntarily establish or join a ‘conservancy’ – a group of conservation-minded landowners. Each landowner agrees to manage a particular area on their property to retain its ‘sense of place’ and to recognise and protect the local biodiversity. There are no contracts, only a constitution which landowners subscribe to and each conservancy is to be registered with CapeNature.

The second step of this proverbial ladder is a voluntary biodiversity stewardship agreement. At this level, such an agreement falls within contract law (between a landowner and a provincial conservation authority) – typically a minimum of five years up to about 30 years.

On the top tiers of this ladder, the commitment progresses from short-term agreements to embedded in law forever, and in many cases, written into a property’s title deeds. This means that even if a landowner sells his property, the conserved portion of land has to be honoured by the new landowner. The legal phrase used is ‘in perpetuity’ – meaning forever, ever! There may be restrictions on some types of land uses in order to protect the biodiversity, which is why the landowner can choose what suits his level of land use ambition. And, there may be tax incentives.

The third step on the stewardship ladder is defined as a protected environment which is suitable for declaration over multiple properties and with less restrictive land use than a nature reserve.

And the fourth step, the highest level of legal land protection, is a stewardship nature reserve – best for properties with highest biodiversity importance.
Both protected environments and nature reserves effectively contribute to South Africa’s protected area estate.

To the Breede River Valley and beyond

Of course Gareth is not the only person with stewardship desires in the Breede River region. As an example, many landowners around Worcester and Robertson came together in 2006 – led by Graham Beck – to create the Rooiberg Breede River Conservancy. And in 2020 for the first time this conservancy, which covers 16 000 ha, has employed a conservation manager to work on projects and shared environmental issues in the area.

There are also a few Conservation Champion wine farms in the area who are supported by WWF and another four biodiversity stewardship agreements under negotiation.

While stewardship around the Robertson area is mostly with private landowners, there are other parts of the Succulent Karoo where stewardship is carried out on communal land. These include the Little Karoo – near to the towns of Ladismith, Calitzdorp and Oudtshoorn, and the Kamiesberg region on the N7 in the Northern Cape. WWF has supported stewardship projects in both areas.

Sue with a donkey
© WWF South Africa / Sue Northam-Ras
While road tripping in the Succulent Karoo region, Sue and her family visited the Eseltjiesrus Donkey Sanctuary outside McGregor.
In good hands

With plant poaching and illegal trade of exotic species on the rise, we need to conserve every precious treasure patch and untouched stretch of this unique indigenous vegetation that we can.

And as the custodians of over one third of the world’s special succulents, South Africa has a major role to play in the conservation of this special collection of water-wise climate resilient plants. In this under-researched corner of the world, perhaps we might even learn a thing or two from the region’s vegetation and its climate-wise ways.

In thinking back on my birthday road trip to this corner of the Western Cape, and stewardship of this special land, it also made me reflect of the way we raise our kids. It dawned on me that owning land, like parenting, comes with great responsibility. It’s about being good custodians of the wild treasures in our care – of looking after something that is not really ours. As the author Kahlil Gibran wrote in his most famous work The Prophet, I paraphrase a snippet that aligns with my thoughts on good parenting and stewardship: ‘Your children are not your children. And though they are with you they belong not to you.’

Sue Northam-Ras Photo
Sue Northam-Ras, Communications Manager

Sue believes in making information valuable by writing and shaping content in a way that gives it meaning. She packages the environmental content for WWF South Africa.

Wild Treasures

Explore and support the magic of the Succulent Karoo.