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Seven insights from the beautiful grasslands of the Eastern Cape

Two partner organisations and two communal sheep farmers share their experience of what happens when a community-centred approach is taken to conserving land, ecosystems and biodiversity while also boosting livelihoods.

A herd of sheep in the grassy highlands of the Eastern Cape.
© Tanya Farber / WWF South Africa
The highlands of the northern region of the Eastern Cape are home to many commercial and communal sheep farmers.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting the surrounding areas of Nqanqarhu (Maclear) and the beautiful high-altitude grasslands of the Eastern Cape where I witnessed how special care is being taken to balance natural ecosystems with sustainable livelihoods. Sheep farming is a large part of the economic dynamics in this area, but without good systems in place, overgrazing can be a threat to biodiversity. 
The background of the project I explored is this: French luxury group Kering, together with Conservation International (CI), launched the Regenerative Fund for Nature in 2021. The goal of the fund is to transform 1 000 000 hectares of crop and rangeland into regenerative spaces by 2026 across the globe. 
Conservation South Africa (CSA), an affiliate of CI, negotiated the signing of various Conservation Agreements with the fund’s local communal farmer grantees in the grasslands of the Eastern Cape. Agreements of this nature incentivise these sheep farmers to implement various conservation actions, like season-long rotational rest of the grazing areas in exchange for benefits that improve their livelihoods. WWF provided additional project support to document outcomes, learnings and communication materials to augment the work. 
This first funding cycle of the regenerative wool production project in the Eastern Cape is now complete, and to get a better understanding of how the work has had a positive impact on the land, nature and people, I spoke to Dr Perushan Rajah (Regional Manager of Rangeland Impact at CSA) and Lumko Mboyi (regenerative rangeland manager at WWF), as well as Zuziwe Dlamini and Thabo Khumalo who are both communal sheep farmers in the area, and beneficiaries of the regenerative work. 

A herd of sheep in the grassy highlands
© Tanya Farber / WWF South Africa
The highlands of the northern region of the Eastern Cape are home to many commercial and communal sheep farmers.
Dr Perushan Rajah shares his insights on the power of community partnerships

How have CSA and community partnerships impacted the land, biodiversity, environment and nature? 

The design of the partnership model places community members at the centre of conservation actions that lead to tangible conservation outcomes. These are inherently linked to livelihood and environmental benefits. A major impact, amongst many from this long-standing partnership, is an increase in rangeland floral biodiversity, with important grasslands species showing dominance across partnership-managed areas.  

How do you see the relationship evolving over time? 

In terms of evolution or long-term vision, CSA would like to empower communities to a point where they are able to take full responsibility and ownership of their land for pastoral and other livelihood activities. Over time we expect an increase in grassland ecosystem functioning and health, thus improving the livelihoods of communities that reside in these areas and providing opportunity for a thriving nature-based economy.  

Lumko Mboyi gives his insights on the relationship between human activity, biodiversity and the health of sheep

How do you think the Conservation Agreements have introduced changes that might benefit the environment in the short term and long term?  

Grass plants in newly rested areas can rebuild their root reserves in the short term, making them more resilient to grazing in the near future. In the long term, we anticipate that the more palatable (grass) species will have greater opportunity to compete and thrive in the rangelands. 

How do you imagine the condition of soil ten years from now being compared to the present and how does this relate to biodiversity? 

Soils will have a healthier ecosystem that can support the requisite soil life and soil processes needed to degrade organic matter and store it. Additionally, healthier soils will have better infiltration characteristics to improve soil-water dynamics. Healthier soil also means healthier biodiversity. Allowing an area to rest allows a myriad of species to establish and rehabilitate, including palatable grasses and forb species. A healthy grassland with diverse floral species can in turn support a variety of faunal species such as insects and small mammals. 

What do you feel would have changed in terms of the health of sheep as a result of this work? 

As the project works with communal farmers, by providing assistance with some of the important vaccinations that their sheep need but may not readily afford on their own, the health and productivity of their livestock will gradually improve and translate to better wool and meat quality. 

A small flock of sheep and a birds in the grasslands.
© Angus Burns / WWF South Africa
The grasslands are home to several species of fauna and flora
Zuziwe Dlamini shares insights on how this work has changed her way of thinking

How has this project changed your understanding of the relationship between animals, humans and the land? 

We rely a lot on the natural environment for medicines made from plants and herbs. That is for both our livestock and our families, and now we understand better that making sure systems in nature are healthy is important because we rely on them so much for our own food and health. We also see how the change in weather affects livestock. The rain these days lasts for shorter, but it rains much harder and our sheep get stuck out in the veld. When the weather is hot and wet, sheep scab gets worse. 

Thabo Khumalo talks about how he now understands the link to climate change

Has this project given you a better understanding of climate change? 

Over the years we have noticed the historically known windy conditions of August happening more in May and June these days. So, this indicates the weather patterns are changing. Now we understand better that it’s important to have diverse plants because some trees and herbs hold the soil in place and that is better than having bare areas. We also understand more about destruction of habitats. For example, we see in breeding season birds’ nests now getting washed away. That has an impact on biodiversity as some birds are losing so many eggs and chicks. 

a grasslands landscape
© Angus Burns / WWF South Africa
Rotational grazing gives the soil and grass a chance to rejuvenate.
A glimpse into a brighter future

I was filled with a sense of hope after speaking to these four individuals, all of whom share a vested interest in land, nature and people in this biodiversity-rich region of South Africa. Words from Dr Rajah beautifully sum up for me what the long-term picture might be:   

If I had to imagine the area a decade from now, I imagine lush and productive grasslands that are able to support healthy and disease-free livestock. I also see the major sources of freshwater in the catchment being protected, secured and managed according to the community’s needs and demand for freshwater. There will also be increased governance linked to land and how it is utilised amongst those communities who rely on it for their livelihoods. The area will sustain high levels of biodiversity, both floral and faunal in nature, with humans, livestock and wildlife co-existing in harmony.”  

Tanya Farber Photo
Tanya Farber, Communications Coordinator

Tanya Farber loves nature, photography and the written word

Boost to communal farmers’ livelihoods

Find out more about the communal farmers who benefited from this project