Various lockdown permutations since March last year have affected when and where we could walk, but current restrictions allow walking and exercising outdoors so long as protocols are followed. Fortunately for us, we have an easily accessible area for outdoor walking as our suburb is skirted by a commercial plantation.
Of course, a proper woodland with its greater biodiversity would have more appeal, but plantation walking is still a lot more pleasant than walking through suburban streets loud with barking dogs and tense with traffic.
Monoculture anything has a dull uniformity and can border on sterility, but we can try to find a certain charm in its minimalism, as illustrated by the eucalyptus trees photographed in the local plantation on one of our walks with our dogs.
I find I have very few photographs taken on our walks because the plantation does not evoke much interest. The photographs we do have are snapped with our cell phones.
A stream-bed runs through a small valley that forms a marginal space between the plantation and the residential properties on our side of the street. I say stream-bed because this stream is dry and has not flowed for decades, perhaps because the thirsty plantation trees take up so much water.
In the photo below taken of the plantation and its margins behind our house, a small fire can be glimpsed. Fortunately nearby fires in the plantation have all been successfully extinguished by the timber company bringing in water tankers and pumps to hose down and douse the flames.
Flourishing along the margins of the plantation are mostly exotic (alien) species of plants many of which are highly invasive. Visible in the above photo and prominent among the larger species growing in this area are bugweed (Solanum mauritianum), lantana or tickberry (Lantana camera) and Mauritius thorn (Caesalpinia decapetala) all of which compete with indigenous plants and have a negative impact on biodiversity. The first two have poisonous properties and the last two can form impenetrable thorny thickets.
The most recent fire was in September last year and in the above photo a line of fire can be seen snaking through the litter under the trees just before the firefighters arrived to extinguish it. On a walk the next day we paused at an old tree stump that had previously housed a natural hive of wild bees. The stump was still smouldering and as the fire had been fanned in one direction by the prevailing wind, we saw that the stump was located where it appeared the fire had begun. We wondered if someone had been trying to smoke out the bees to get the honey and had started a fire by mistake.
The last time trees in this plantation were harvested was in mid-2010, which is when I took the above photograph. The trees are felled for harvesting every 8 to 12 years. The next round of felling in this part of the plantation commenced a few months ago. Eucalyptus timber is used for making prop shafts in the mining industry, but the bulk of the timber here will be chipped and exported to pulp and paper manufacturers, mostly in Japan.
Prior to the introduction of eucalyptus trees in this area, most of the plantation comprised black wattle (Acacia mearnsii). An extract from the tannin-rich bark can be used in the leather tanning industry. Wattle is still grown commercially but to a lesser extent. The timber can be used for pulp but also to produce charcoal and firewood. Pine is not grown much in this region.
After compartments of trees are felled and the area cleared of timber, the remaining brush is burnt to prevent it from providing fuel for any uncontrolled fires that might start in the future. The plants that generate naturally in the cleared areas are by and large invasive aliens, which of course include prolifically self-seeding trees used in the commercial plantation industry, with the black wattle being a prime example.
Among the self-generated plants visible in the above photo are black wattle, bugweed and lantana. Of course also flourishing are smaller herby alien plants, such as blackjacks (Bidens pilosa) and the like.
This area was formerly grassland, and today commercial plantations cover not only former grasslands but also what used to be discrete patches of indigenous mistbelt forest. Like elsewhere in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, in earlier times parts of our suburb accommodated small mixed farms before being taken over several decades ago by expanding residential areas and commercial plantations.
In the plantation, mostly one is hard pressed to find any indigenous plants even at the margins, so I was especially pleased to come across one of the wild lobelias in flower (above). We have also seen a few woodland freesias (Freesia laxa) in flower, and more commonly the Natal Blue Bell (Thunbergia natalensis), which even manages to grow alongside the logging roads. Near muddy patches in the summer we have also seen some wild buttercups, a species of Ranunculus.
It goes without saying that tree plantations that replace grasslands eradicate grassland species, including the birds and mammals that formerly occurred there. With little biodiversity and providing very little food, alien tree plantations impact negatively on former forest dwellers too. An illustration of the unsuitability of fast-growing plantation trees to support many forms of life is their inability to provide nesting opportunities for hole- and cavity-nesting birds in contrast to the diversity of trees in natural woodlands and forests.
Most of the birds that we see occur along the margins of the plantation and in adjacent gardens, and we have no idea what species would occur (or not occur) in more natural plant communities that would have occurred along the now-dry course of the stream.
As far as raptors go, we have noticed a pair of wood owls up in the trees within the plantation, and we once saw a pair of spotted eagle-owls hunkered down on the ground in a small ravine near the dry stream bed. We hear both of these species of owl calling at night.
Old eucalyptus trees on the plantation margins that have escaped being harvested provide potential nesting sites for crowned eagles and black sparrowhawks both of which nest in our area, and possibly also for African harrier-hawks (gymnogenes), which we also commonly see. In the above photo a crowned eagle, perched on bare branches at the top of an old eucalyptus tree, is being subjected to bombardment by a much smaller but plucky fork-tailed drongo. The drongo can be seen flying off before circling around to dive-bomb the eagle again from behind.
There are species of mammals that survive on the margins of the plantation too and these include bushbuck, common duiker, porcupine, genets, very likely rock hyraxes (dassies) and at least three species of mongoose, such as the slender mongoose (above) that I photographed behind our garden. Even caracals have been spotted in parts of the plantation not too far from here.
And of course also living on the margins of the plantation and using the trees on the edge as night-roosting sites is a troop of vervet monkeys that is resident in the area.
Above is a closer view of the eucalyptus trees taken from a path within the plantation. The thick layer of plant debris on the ground results from some of the fierce storms that have occurred recently.
The morning mist makes the plantation look more appealing than usual. We are indeed fortunate to be able to walk in such an environment and in our own neighbourhood too.
I hope that wherever you are, you also have the opportunity to walk in nature. Even when thoroughly domesticated, nature still has the ability to be therapeutically calming and to provide a sense of peace.
Malan, Gerard. 2001. The avifauna of riparian-Pinus habitat edges at Mooiplaas forestry estate, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. African Journal of Wildlife Research 31(3):73-84. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/287950414_The_avifauna_of_riparian-Pinus_habitat_edges_at_Mooiplaas_forestry_estate_KwaZulu-Natal_South_Africa; South Africa. Department of Transport/KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport. [n.d.] Forestry KwaZulu-Natal: Freight transport data bank. http://www.kzntransport.gov.za/public_trans/freight_databank/kzn/industries/forestry/index_xml.html; Witt, Harald. [n.d.] The Origins of Commercial Tree Plantations in KwaZulu-Natal. Timberwatch. http://www.timberwatch.org.za/old_site/articles/The%20Origins%20of%20Commercial%20Tree%20Plantations%20in%20KwaZulu-Natal%20.htm
Posted by Carol