NEAG NEWSLETTER – September 2020
We may still be in lockdown and the winter chill clings to the air but we’re celebrating the fields of flowers, longer days and the coming of Spring!
In this edition of the NEAG Newsletter find out what we’ve been up to, why alien species are a threat to our biodiversity and how you can help identify and reduce the spread of a major threat to our trees.
We showcase some beautiful images of our migrating toads, highlight the concerns around our bird life and share all the details for Open Gardens, the upcoming event of the year!
A big thank you to all those who have contributed to this edition and to the NEAG Newsletter Team – Ceinwen Smith, Gwen Hewett and Andrea Marais – for compiling and editing another excellent publication!
We hope you enjoy the read and as always we’d love to hear from you so please get in touch if you have any feedback.
What kept NEAG busy during lockdown?
NEAG removed over 380 rooikrantz plants of all sizes, from small seedlings, through bushes of various sizes, up to small trees with one or more stems each more than 5cm in diameter. In total NEAG put in over 60 man/woman-hours, mostly with only hand-tools.
During lockdown the NEAG team worked hard with the NRPA and local residents on getting or responding to appeals against Houmoed Phase 1 & Phase 2 as well as the proposed development of a school on part of the De Villiers farm. Although nobody is opposed to the development of a school in Noordhoek, thorough analysis has suggested that the identified piece of land is not the correct place for a large school such as the one proposed.
Working closely with the NRPA it was decided that NEAG becomes a holding space for local organisations that fall within the Tread Lightly goal, which forms part of the Noordhoek 2030 Vision. As such NEAG is currently working closely with and providing support for other local environmental organisations namely ToadNUTs, On the Verge and Project Noordhoeked.
Chapmans Peak Nature Sanctuary
Habitat restoration of our very own patch of critically endangered Strandveld by Dr. Kirkwood and Dr. Anderson which included weeding of alien grasses, sowing a bunch of native seed and planting out a few select plants propagated from the site. Together they have managed to turn what was becoming an ugly, rubble and litter filled barren area, back into a spring flower wonderland!
Aliens in Lockdown
By Dr Rob Anderson
One of the most valuable pieces of vegetation in Noordhoek, deservedly marked as a Critical Biodiversity Area on the City’s maps, stretches southwards from the Noordhoek beach parking lot and the lower end of Beach Road. It is a lovely combination of dune strandveld (on the flatter sandy areas) and patches of coastal thicket (around the higher dunes). Happily, it falls within the Coastal Setback Zone, so it should never be developed.
The image on the right shows the view from Willow Road towards the sea – patches of coastal thicket give way to strandveld and eventually dune scrub. As can be seen, the vegetation there is now in excellent condition.
Before fire raged through the area in 2000, much of the strandveld was so heavily infested with aliens that the back path to the beach was a sandy avenue lined by a tall forest of rooikrans and Port Jacksons.
Hundreds of stumps remain testimony to the infestation of twenty years ago!
The 2000, fire reduced everything to ash. When things began to grow back, the City funded an alien removal operation, and soon the indigenous species gained the upper hand. Since then, NEAG members have periodically – but rather haphazardly – removed offending bushes. Recently we noticed that more of the usual culprits were becoming established, as well as some manatokas and sisal (Agave) plants. Worse, some of the rooikrans bushes were big enough to set seed. Remembering the gardener’s axiom “one year’s seeding means ten years’ weeding” we resolved to act – just as lockdown struck and everyone was confined to barracks!
The City’s Environmental Department (what a pleasure to deal with them!) came to our rescue by providing a group of us with permits to “Render essential services during Covid-19 Lockdown”.
The main photo above shows some of the hack team, suitably masked as per regulations.
More than half of the rooikrans bushes were small enough to pull out, however, many of the bigger bushes needed the attentions of a chainsaw. Cut branches are heaped behind Bill on the right and the final stumps on the left are about to be sawn off.
The land behind Bill is managed by SANParks and is in urgent need of clearing. Unfortunately, we were only authorised to work on City land.
We have now almost finished clearing the City owned section of alien vegetation. Almost 400 rooikrans plants of all sizes have been removed, and we are now working on the (far fewer) Port Jacksons, manatokas and sisal (see image on right).
There are about 12 of these spiky horrors, some very large, and they spread by runner and seed.
They are awful things to remove and may have to be individually hacked down and dug out.
Being out at any hour of the day during Stage 4 Lockdown was a privilege made more enjoyable by some of those gloriously warm winter days on the dunes in bright sunshine with the mingling scents of sea air and blombos. Many sunny hours of hacking will provide some of our better memories of Lockdown!
Acknowledgments: Gregg Oelofse and the City of Cape Town are deeply thanked for their support! Ceinwen Smith took many of the photos.
Rob Anderson and his girlfriend (now wife) Hazel came to Noordhoek from Johannesburg in 1977, as a First Stop Before the Rest of the World. However, they realized Noordhoek would be hard to beat so they stayed and raised a family here. Rob also did a PhD in marine biology at UCT and worked (mainly on seaweeds) for 36 years before retiring in 2018. He was a founder member of NEAG and is currently Vice-Chairperson. He says Noordhoek has changed in the last 40 years, but is still a damn fine place.
So what is an Alien?
By Glenn Ashton
When we talk about alien species many people point out that most of the plants and animals surrounding us are as alien as we are to this area. Some even go so far as to insist there is no such thing as aliens but they are probably talking about extraterrestrial life. The reality is we can’t even be certain about this.
So what are we talking about when we refer to alien species? Let’s first look at a few related terms. First is endemic. These are species that are limited to a given location.
Next up is indigenous, where species are found in a certain area or nation but may be found elsewhere. Noordhoek has high levels of endemic and indigenous species.
Then we get to alien or imported species. Not all of these non-indigenous plants and animals are problematic. The only ones we need worry about are those that are invasive, similar to how alien invaders are referred to in popular movies and fiction – they are out to take what is not theirs. So alien invasive species are what we need to worry about.
We are fortunate to live in one of the most biodiverse areas on earth. The Peninsula has significantly more species than the entire British Isles, and we know how proud they are of their plants, flowers and gardens! The problem comes when specific alien species are introduced, intentionally or by accident, that are able to disrupt or outcompete indigenous or endemic species. As tough and resilient as fynbos is, it is also easily upset by the presence of invasive species, sometimes even those from different regions of South Africa.
So not all aliens are bad. Oaks and other European or Asian trees have become naturalised here, just as have many varieties of garden plants – roses, gardenia, marigolds and so on. These plants generally are not a problem because they do not outcompete, smother or displace our indigenous species.
The problem is not limited only to plants. We have crabs introduced by ship ballast water, Himalayan Mountain goats (Thar) that just love fynbos and have no predators, Mediterranean mussels that have outcompeted ours and of course pests like rats and mice that have been introduced.
In the late 1990s the dunes behind Noordhoek beach were swamped with Acacia cyclops (rooikrans), an appreciated braai wood. The area between the car park and beach had no other visible life besides rooikrans. When we initiated clearing some locals became upset that we were “killing the trees” because they didn’t really understand what was at stake. Since then we, as a Noordhoek community, along with help from the City and SAN Parks, have managed to clear this area of alien trees. Gradually the indigenous vegetation has recovered and begun to resemble the endangered variety of cape lowland strandveld that was there before, along with the spring flowers, the animals like antelope, otter, mongoose and birds which support their presence in the area.
Please feel free to plant introduced species, if you must. Most of them are not as happy in our harsh climate and need more water and care than endemic or indigenous species. But as long as these aliens do not threaten our valuable natural heritage we can live together. It’s the ones that want to take over that we must watch out for and remove before they gain a foothold.
Glenn is a PhD candidate at the University of Stellenbosch’s Centre for Complex Systems in Transition. He has a long history of engagement with environmental management, food security, biodiversity preservation and community work. His curiosity about our place on the planet continues to shape his life.
Small but deadly – Shothole Borer and the threat to our trees
By Alexander Stewart
This tree-killing beastie (Euwallacea fornicatus) originates from South East Asia, where forests over years of evolution have largely developed immunity. It recently arrived at South Africa’s shores via the US and Israel, where it has decimated fruit farms and urban trees. The beetle was first detected in KwaZulu-Natal in 2017. It is thought to have reached Durban by ship in wooden pallets, from where it spread northward, but has now also reached Somerset West.
Shot hole borer beetles are not fussy and will try most species of tree, although they do have preferences. The trees the beetles find tastiest include many fruit and nut trees such as avocado, peach, orange, grapevine, pecan and macadamia, as well as plane trees, coral trees and cabbage trees. The females bore through the bark, cambium and live sapwood to the heartwood in the centre, where they create tunnels or “galleries” in which to lay their larvae. When females find a tree they like, the tree is usually doomed.
These tiny, 2-mm long beetles from the ambrosia family are not totally to blame for the harm they do. They have a symbiotic relationship with a fungus, Fusarium euwallacea, which the females carry around their necks like a collar, infecting the live wood as they bore through it into the heartwood. The live wood is where the fungus does its damage, disrupting the flow of water and nutrients, which eventually causes the tree to shut down and die. When the beetle larvae hatch inside the galleries, they feed on the fungus. Neither the beetle nor the fungus can survive without the other.
Interestingly, beetles and other critters generally only attack trees that are stressed. Yes, even trees get stressed! The usual causes are incorrect pruning, climatic shifts or changes in their environment, such as urban development. Trees mostly do not need pruning; they are extremely efficient at looking after themselves. But if we do choose to prune them, we should do so in a way that does not weaken or expose the tree to infection. Another problem is our rapidly changing climate, because trees can take many decades to adjust. The recent years of drought have taken a severe toll on many of Cape Town’s trees, and overwatering is similarly harmful. Meanwhile, our urban landscape is also changing rapidly under the pressure to develop and expand the city’s footprint. To minimise the impact on our trees, we need to give them greater consideration when planning renovations, landscaping or new buildings. We need to look after what we have.
To identify the disease, look for changes in the tree such as die back or thinning of the crown. The name ‘shot hole’ refers to the lesions the beetles leave where they bore into the tree, that look as if the tree has been struck with buckshot. The holes often weep what appears to be tree sap. If you peel back the bark with a sharp knife around a suspected hole, an infected tree will show black or blue discoloration resembling an ink pen flick on blotting paper. It is advisable to get it verified by an arborist at this point.
Some examples of indigenous host species
(Link to full list below)
The infestation is spread mainly through the distribution of firewood. Every day big trucks come barrelling down the N2 to Cape Town loaded with firewood to keep chilly Capetonians warm through the winter months. No governing body is checking or disinfecting this wood – perhaps because they have bigger problems at the moment. So whenever you buy firewood, ask where it has come from, and try to avoid wood that has travelled a long distance. Fortunately (or unfortunately!), aliens like eucalyptus, rooikrans and Port Jackson are not affected, so try to use them for firewood.
The other main cause of spread is tree fellers who cut down infected trees and don’t know how to deal with the wood afterwards. It is critical to keep it on site, and get it chipped and solarised – covered with clear plastic and left to bake in the sun to kill any beetles and larvae. This works the best, according to our arborist friends who are facing this outbreak in Johannesburg.
This disease could radically change the landscape of the Western Cape, not only the urban landscape and our productive fruit, nut and wine farms, but also the remaining fragments of indigenous forest that we have so far managed to preserve. It is critical to protect our trees. But right now our human pandemic is consuming huge resources and attention, while this even graver threat to our trees (that will ultimately affect us too) is largely being ignored. We can only hope that when we finally recover from this dreadful time, we don’t find that our tunnel vision has left us without our much loved tree species that are such a huge presence in this land.
See https://www.fabinet.up.ac.za/index.php/pshb for more information, including a full updated list of all reproductive and non reproductive host trees.
To report suspected cases see www.capetowninvaisives.org.za
Alexander, originally from the UK, is the 3rd generation in his family who is interested in trees. His father worked in forestry in Scotland and grandfather planned and planted arboretums in the UK. Al has been working with trees for 26 years and calls himself an arborist. He has been living on the peninsula since 2006 and a resident of Noordhoek for the past 6 years. Al is passionate about the restoration of land and forests, planting trees and creating habitats for local fauna and flora.
Not All Trees are Equal
By Dr Rob Anderson
As a biologist I take it as self-evident that indigenous trees (and other plants) are preferable to their imported counterparts. So I am bemused when educated friends cannot understand why I want to cut down (certain) alien trees. “We need trees to take up CO2” they argue. Well, true, but aren’t there right and wrong trees? Let me explain why many of us believe we are better off with an indigenous flora.
Every place on earth has (or had!) an indigenous biota: a complement of life that evolved there. Micro-organisms, plants and animals: a web of life that has been and is still developing there over many millennia. Even if not always in harmonious balance, these species invariably have functional relationships, like the working relationships among humans in a community.
Some are incredibly specialized. A certain fynbos species and a soil fungus may depend on each other, a species of moth may be the only pollinator of a tree that is a vital food source for some local animals. Nature is absolutely packed with extraordinary inter-species relationships, and as with the web of human relationships, breaking nature’s web always has unexpected and often dire consequences.
Some alien plants are like well-behaved settlers in someone else’s country (to coin a provocative phrase). They go about their business quietly, don’t displace or annoy many locals and may even be an asset. Think of the grove of blue gums on a Karoo farm that gives shade in summer and firewood in winter, or the huge oaks on Noordhoek common. These usually need to be planted – they don’t simply establish themselves and spread. But other alien species behave like jackbooted conquerors. Ubiquitous culprits in the Western Cape are the Australian wattles (Acacias), including rooikrans and Port Jackson willow. They march through our fynbos, replacing hundreds of species with their identical ranks and reducing intricately linked communities to a few cringing refugees – a shrivelled blombos here and there, or the pathetically reduced insect and bird life in a rooikrans or pine forest.
Island biogeography theory tells us that the total area of an ecosystem will determine how many species can exist there. In other words, every hectare of an indigenous community that we lose will ultimately contribute to a loss of species: not just some individuals, but entire species – a loss of biodiversity. So it is true to say that every square metre counts, because the whole web of life on which we depend is made up of interacting species.
Biodiversity is like money in the bank – you don’t think about it until something goes wrong and you need it. (I can’t resist another analogy: who is to say that when the web starts unravelling we may not need a spider?).
Besides overwhelming and replacing the indigenous flora, most alien trees burn far too well, their huge fuel-loads creating super-hot fires that send up cascades of embers and leave a devastated landscape like that shown on the left. Current research at Nelson Mandela University shows that nothing burns as fast or hot as a fresh rooikrans bush! Many fynbos species are flammable (it is a fire-evolved vegetation type), but rooikrans is a champion. I can vouch for this after helping to fight the fire next to the wetland early this year. When embers started falling, it was always the individual rooikrans bushes among the remnants of indigenous thicket that burst into flame.
We also know that palm and eucalyptus trees explode like grenades, and that wind-driven fire races through pine or eucalyptus canopies faster than we can run. Interestingly, although many indigenous trees burn fairly well, milkwood is remarkably fire resistant!
In case you are not yet convinced, consider water, that precious substance soon destined to become a source of worldwide conflict. The reason South Africa has an organization called “Working for Water” is so that they can send teams (like that shown on the left) into our catchments to cut out the alien trees that suck inordinate amounts of water out of the soil (far more than fynbos and indigenous forests).
My ancestors, the ancient Celts, knew that nature needed protection. Brehon law, the code that existed in the time of the Druids, prescribed a complex range of penalties for harming people, trees, water, animals and more. And not all trees were equal. Damaging a “Noble of the Wood” such as an oak, carried a penalty of 25 cows, while damaging a “Commoner of the Wood” like an elm brought a penalty of one cow. Damage to even a bramble drew a penalty of one sheep. If they had been faced with infestations of alien trees, I have no doubt those wise Druids would have rewarded their removal!
Some visionary millennials may excite themselves with dreams of living on Mars once we have carelessly ruined the earth. Call me old-fashioned, but I’ll stick with the place where I evolved. That is why I’m prepared to do my bit to keep it going, and why I cut down alien trees.
Acknowledgments: thanks to Shirley and Richard Cowling for the helpful comments and to Richard for the photographs.
Toad migration in pictures
Lockdown did not stop our local toads from migrating to their breeding ponds for their annual mating dance.
Disturbance of birds on Noordhoek Beach
The lack of birds despite the best conditions for nesting in the past 4 years is of profound concern in Noordhoek.
Read more in this article Footprints in the sand by local bird specialist, Andrew Jenkins.
Noordhoek Open Gardens
Connecting to nature is essential for our wellbeing
In this time of isolation, uncertainty and fear we are experiencing trauma on many different levels. Now more than ever we are called to step into nature, to be present and to allow the wilderness to help us heal.
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