The Eastern Cape has been plagued by grassland degradation since the mid-90s. Research dating back to 1995 indicates that the Ciskei and Transkei areas, which are largely farmed and grazed upon by homesteaders, are particularly susceptible.
Grassland biodiversity in South Africa has been deemed as one of the most critically endangered biomes. The factors influencing grassland degradation include overgrazing by livestock, climate change, and the loss of soil nutrients. Currently, only 2% of grasslands in South Africa are formally conserved – the lowest protection rate in the world.
Grasslands provide food for cattle, which in turn provide meat, milk, wool, and leather goods to support human livelihoods. The biome also offers great habitat for a variety of soil fauna, as well as range lands for wild herbivores. They also serve as a stopover for breeding, migratory, and wintering birds.
Both the grassland vegetation and the soil itself act as significant carbon sinks, which helps to prevent global warming. These expansive landscapes provide opportunities for aesthetic and spiritual fulfillment as well as supporting leisure pursuits like hunting, animal watching, and tourism in general.
What is the impact of grassland degradation?
“One of the main reasons for the South African ecosystem’s declining health is the conversion of natural ecosystems for farming, afforestation, grazing pastures, and mining,” says Nandipha Ndamane, an environmental consultant for Sigwela and Associates, a company which often works in conjunction with the University of KwaZulu-Natal to conduct environmental studies.
Their latest study looks specifically at an ongoing rehabilitation programme focused on the Mount Fletcher area of the Eastern Cape.
“The stressed ecosystem is characterised by a ‘distress syndrome’ that includes increased disease prevalence, decreased nutrient cycling efficiency, increased dominance of exotic species, and increased dominance of smaller, shorter-lived opportunistic species in addition to reduced biodiversity, and altered primary and secondary productivity.”
According to Ndamane, it is essential that the erosion and degradation of grasslands be addressed, as it impacts the quality of grazing for livestock. This in turn has an impact on communities relying on the livestock to feed themselves and generate an income.
“As a result of human actions, the structure and functioning of the ecosystems is degraded, which in turn threatens food security and the maintenance of biodiversity,” she adds.
“Ecosystems will continue to degrade under the pressure of increased demands unless preventative and restorative strategies are applied to achieve the health and integrity of regional ecosystems.”
How can grasslands be restored?
Ecological farming practices are gaining traction as a way to slowly but surely restore degraded grasslands.
“Ecosystem restoration is principally an ecological matter and should therefore be guided by ecological theory and practice,” says Dr Clinton Carbutt, a specialist scientist within the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Life Sciences.
“This biome is poorly conserved and in dire need of restoration, an ecologically centred practice gaining increasing traction given its wide application to people and biodiversity in this emerging culture of renewal.”
According to Carbutt, this shift in restoration uses what is called a “biodiversity approach”, which makes use of revegetation through grass, seeds and perennial forbs (flowering plants).
“The ‘biodiversity approach’ has limitations and is best suited to restoring ecological processes rather than attempting to match the original pristine state. We advocate conserving intact grassland ecosystems as the key strategy for protecting grassland biodiversity, including small patches with disproportionately high biodiversity conservation value,” he explains.
“Over the past decade, however, there has been an increasing awareness of the value of grasslands for biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services and climate change mitigation,” he adds.
“Recognising these values is also central to reforming grassland restoration policies and practices – restoration paradigms have shifted in recent years towards an ever-increasing emphasis of the biodiversity approach.”
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