The suburb I live in nestles up against commercial plantations on the edge of town. Pre the colonial era and the development of urban settlement, what is now plantation and suburbia was part of a mosaic of mistbelt forest and grassland.
Mistbelt habitats: A view of grassland adjoining forest in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands
Rolling grasslands in the interior of what became known as Natal Province (now KwaZulu-Natal) were interspersed with forest patches that grew mostly on southern-facing slopes. These patches varied in size and shape, with some adjoining to form long bands of almost continuous forest. The mistbelt forests and grasslands were ecologically interrelated, with many animals and birds moving in and out of the forests and migrating between forested areas depending on the seasons and food supply, and with many inhabiting the scrub of the forest margins.
Winter in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands: seasonally dry grassland adjoining a patch of forest
Because of human activity, including logging, agriculture and commercial plantations, most of the grasslands have become transformed or lost. It is estimated that only 4% of untransformed mistbelt grassland remains and even that is under threat. Forested areas too have declined in size with many small patches being entirely eradicated.
A view of agricultural lands photographed from a high vantage point above a band of mistbelt forest. Beyond the tops of the indigenous forest trees in the foreground, almost all the trees in the landscape are exotic, including the small stands of plantation. Mistbelt grasslands have been completely transformed into fields and pastures
Because forest patches function as a linked system with animals migrating from patch to patch, the loss of many small patches impacts on the survival of forest-dependent species, such as Cape Parrots and Samango monkeys. Fruit-eating Cape Parrots need to migrate between forest patches to have continuous access to food. Samango monkeys disperse across forest patches for breeding purposes. The absence of safe corridors between increasingly isolated forest patches creates additional threats to the survival of such species.
Wild Samango monkeys in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands
The endangered subspecies of Samango monkey, Cercopithecus mitis labiatus, is one of the species threatened by the decline in size and degradation of forest patches as well as by the increasing isolation of remaining patches. As they reach sexual maturity, male Samango monkeys individually disperse from their birth troop as they move off seeking to join other troops in other forest areas. Dispersing males are particularly vulnerable and at risk of being killed by traffic, domestic dogs or by people, and in some areas they are in danger of electrocution on power lines.
Testimony to the age of the mistbelt forests is this Lemonwood tree (Xymalos monospora) estimated to be 2000 years old. As old trees become hollow in the centre they coppice from the base to form a cluster of trunks, as can be seen in the photo above.
The bark of the Lemonwood flakes off in distinctive whorls. The name Lemonwood is due to the lemon scent emitted by freshly crushed leaves. The Lemonwood occurs naturally as far north as southern Sudan, across equatorial Africa and down the eastern regions into South Africa
Human activity has impacted not only on the number and size of mistbelt forest patches, but also on the composition of remaining forest. Logging for timber during the colonial era and into the 20th century made an impact, with large old trees specifically targeted. Disused sawpits can still be seen in the Midlands forests. Overwintering livestock in forests also had a detrimental effect. These days commercial plantations provide for most timber requirements and remaining mistbelt forests are no longer commercially logged. However, locally-based harvesting of trees and forest products continues, and frequent fire burning and agricultural activity right up to edges of remaining forest patches are among the factors impacting on the health and diversity of the forests.
Just over half of the surviving mistbelt forests in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands fall under the jurisdiction of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife or the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, and many of the other forested areas form part of local conservancies. Most conservancies have regular organised walks providing visitors with the opportunity to visit forested areas on private lands. For information on walks in Midlands Conservancies see here.
Walking in the forests enables visitors to appreciate the diversity of the forests, the immensity of the trees and the calls of the abundant birdlife
You don’t need to walk far to be able to appreciate the forest. Just sitting quietly or even lying down in an old-growth forest can be amazingly therapeutic. Research indicates that the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, that is forest bathing or taking in the atmosphere of the forest, is not only calming and relaxing but has health benefits too. For more on the healing effects of forest bathing see this article in Mother Earth News
Different forest patches have different characteristics, which translates into different personalities
These forest photographs were all taken when I was walking in conservancy or conservation areas in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, and include Balgowan, The Dargle, Fort Nottingham and Karkloof. The first two names reflect the Scottish and Irish origins of British settlers who named their land in keeping with their homelands, renaming farms (such as Buffels Bosch) previously owned by Voortrekker farmers who left when Britain took over the former Boer Republic of Natalia in 1843 prior to establishing the Colony of Natal.
The village of Fort Nottingham had an actual fort established by the British in 1856 for the Nottinghamshire regiment garrisoned there to protect settlers from cattle rustling by Bushmen/San who lived in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains.
And the name Karkloof? The story is that its name comes from the wreck of a wagon, owned by a Dutch farmer, which overturned in the valley in 1845 and remained as a landmark for many years. “Kar” in Dutch refers to the wagon, and “kloof” to the valley.
The livelihoods of people living in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands were intimately connected to the forests. The settlers exploited the forests for timber used for their buildings, much of their furniture, their wagons and carts, and fences. Many other items in daily use were made using wood from trees felled in the forests.
And even where I live today, although only tiny and drastically depleted remnants of forests and scrub remain, living reminders of the forests that have gone are the species of forest birds that manage to survive. In a discussion of mistbelt forests on its website, Birdlife South Africa lists species it regards as important forest birds. Alas, our treed suburban spaces and the neigbouring plantation, being only a poor facsimile of the former forest, are unable to support many of the listed forest species.
But I have seen the following species in our garden, several of which I have posted about on this blog. They are the Lemon Dove, Bush Blackcap, Olive Woodpecker, Grey Cuckooshrike, Chorister Robin-Chat, White Starred Robin, Swee Waxbill and Forest Canary. There are still Crowned Eagles and African Wood Owls in the neighbourhood, but sadly the Black Sparrowhawks that used to nest near our garden a few years back are gone.
I believe that wildlife-friendly gardening practices even in suburbia and other urban spaces can provide refuge and sustenance to many species of plants, birds and creatures, many of which lead a tenuous existence. They need our help. Hopefully, our small and seemingly puny individual efforts, emulating the mosaic of forest patches, can add up to an ecological network that supports more than the sum of the parts?
Nesting Chorister Robin-chats update: Two days after my previous post on the Chorister Robin-chats nesting in our garden, we saw one baby robin emerging from the nest at dusk on a relatively cool and damp evening (too dark for photographs). It perched awhile before flying awkwardly to ground, making it to a small shrub and then through the fence into some dense vegetation on the edge of the plantation behind our garden. After five minutes one of the parents appeared and perched in a tree calling softly. It suddenly flew down to where the baby had hidden itself and was greeted by loud and excited chirping from the baby. We have not seen or heard it since, though we hear the parents calling in the early morning and at dusk. Perhaps when it is older it will emerge from the dense cover of its hideout and we will see it again. Chorister Robin-chats feed their fledglings for up to six weeks after they leave the nest.
Birdlife South Africa. 2016. KwaZulu-Natal Mistbelt Forests. https://www.birdlife.org.za/get-involved/join-birdlife-south-africa/item/212-sa071-kwazulu-natal-mistbelt-forests; Downs, Colleen T. & Hart, Lorinda. 2013. 16th Annual Parrot Count – Report on the 2013 Cape Parrot Big Birding Day. http://www.midlandsconservancies.org.za/documents/parrots/CPBBD%20report%2072013.pdf; Experience Karkloof. [n.d.] Landmarks. https://www.experiencekarkloof.co.za/landmarks/; Lawes, Michael J., MacFarlane, Douglas M. & Eeley, Harriet A.C. 2009. Forest landscape pattern in the KwaZulu–Natal midlands, South Africa: 50 years of change or stasis? Austral Ecology 29,6: 613-623. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1442-9993.2004.01396.x; Linden B, Wimberger K, Ehlers-Smith Y, Child MF. 2016. A conservation assessment of Cercopithecus albogularis. In Child MF, Roxburgh L, Do Linh San E, Raimondo D, Davies-Mostert HT, editors. The Red List of Mammals of South Africa, Swaziland and Lesotho. South African National Biodiversity Institute and Endangered Wildlife Trust, South Africa. https://www.google.co.za/searchq=Cercopithecus+albogularis+%E2%80%93+Samango+Monkey&oq=Cercopithecus+albogularis+%E2%80%93+Samango+Monkey&aqs=chrome..69i57.1366j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8; McCracken, D.M., 1986. The indigenous forests of colonial Natal and Zululand. Natalia 16, 19-38. http://natalia.org.za/Files/16/Natalia%20v16%20article%20p19-38%20C.pdf; Midlands Conservancies Forum: Ensuring long term environmental sustainability in the KZN midlands. https://midlandsconservanciesforum.wordpress.com/events/; Samango Monkey Research Project KZN-Natal Midlands. https://samangomonkey.wordpress.com/; Selhub, Eva and Logan, Alan. 2013. Your Brain on Nature: Forest Bathing and Reduced Stress. Mother Earth News. https://www.motherearthnews.com/natural-health/herbal-remedies/forest-bathing-ze0z1301zgar
Posted by Carol