Creating habitat for water birds and other aquatic biodiversity as well as improving water quality in agricultural landscapes.
The project aims to create habitat for indigenous water birds and other aquatic biodiversity as well as improve water quality in agricultural landscapes whilst increasing the awareness of the benefits of these outcomes. Many farm dams in South Africa are barren environments with higher than normal levels of agricultural pollutants and unbalanced nutirient compositions. As such they are not suitable habitat for water birds and many other forms of life that could benefit from these aquatic environments. This project aims to motivate and assist landowners to transform barren farm dams into healthy, biodiverse, ecosystems that have a positive effect on water quality in the dams as well as on hydrologic functioning of water that moves through agricultural landscapes.
Thus far the project has progressed well with very promising results at our pilot sites such as Vergenoegd, Lourensford, Drie Kuillen, L’Ormarins and Arabella Country Estate, each highlighting a different facet of the islands usefulness. Through the success and failures of the various models tested, we now feel that we better understand the most cost-effective floating wetland construction, the most suitable indigenous aquatic plants to use and an appealing aesthetic design. We are also observing how a range of birds, animals, insects and fish are utilising the wetlands and have a master student from Stellenbosch University working to understand how effective different aquatic plants are at removing the common pollutants one finds in water bodies within the agricultural landscape. We are now working on up-scaling the rollout and impact of the project through partnerships with funders and Government programmes.
OUR CLIENT’S NEED
This innovative project was initiated through discussions with the former Vergenoegd Wine Estate owner, John Faure who had used a very ‘green’ method of pest control for many years. John breeds Indian Runner Ducks and uses them as little PCO’s (Pest Control Officers), daily herding them through his vineyards to forage for snails and other insect pests. John also breeds ducks for show and he was recognised as The Showman of the Year for 2009 by the SA Show Poultry Association in 2010. When he is not competing with his own ducks, he assists with judging the competition.
With this love for waterfowl, it was natural that John understood the importance of having indigenous water birds on his farm aswell. A group of conservation and agriculture professionals sat down with John to brainstorm ways to create habitats to attract indigenous waterbirds onto farm dams. The group of specialists from NCC, BirdLife South African, CapeNature and the Department of Agriculture developed the project concept and approached the Table Mountain Fund for funding to pilot their idea.
The guideline document is intended to be a practical guide, including information on how to improve the water quality in their dams, attract waterbirds to their farms and build their own floating islands based on DIY instructions, material lists, plant identification lists, bird identification lists and any other information that we consider helpful in dam rehabilitation efforts for waterbirds.
BirdLife SA is in partnership with NCC in the formation of this guideline and have a vision of translating it into Afrikaans and distributing it to farmers once it is completed. Other partners include Vergenoegd Wine Estate, LandCare SA, Conservation in Action, CapeNature, TMF/WWF-SA and you! You can get involved in this project by spreading the word and getting people excited about the potential that farm dams have.
Floating Islands are one of the main tools that will be used in this project.
The wetland plant propagating nursery (essentially wetland ponds), which were constructed as part of this project on Vergenoegd Wine Estate in November 2014 are the main focus at the moment. Several floating island frames have been built and indigenous plants are being propagated in the wetland ponds to be used to plant on the islands. Floating islands are porous platforms that will float on a dam and have plant matter growing on and through them. As the plants grow, they will produce root systems that extend into the dam. These root systems are colonized by good bacteria and microbes, which form a biofilm that is highly efficient at taking up and metabolising pollutants and nutrients. This biofilm provides the base for a highly effective food chain and the roots provide refuge and a food base for fish.
Floating islands are designed so that plants can be propagated directly onto them, so that they can either be grown directly on the chosen dam or, once the plants are established at a different site, ready-made and ready-planted floating island sections can be transported to the pilot sites (like puzzle pieces) and placed into the dams, then attached in a formation as established floating islands. We hope that this will minimise the impact that birds will have on the young plants. This is why the pilot project is so useful. Continuous evaluation is done to identify what plants fare best and if there are any changes that need to be made to the model.
There are two main floating island prototypes. One prototype is biodegradable, made from harvested Spanseriet poles Arundo donax, coir, hessian, sisal rope and is 100% bio-degradable. The other prototype uses materials such as PVC pipe, pool noodles, coir and shade cloth. This one has better flotation, but it isn’t biodegradable. Several hybrids of these prototypes have been constructed. Initially tested in a swimming pool they have since been launched and tested on Vergenoegd dam. The ultimate test however will happen over time, once these islands are fully vegetated, in place on farm dams and being utilised by waterbirds.
A kick-off launch in 2015 will be a fun way to increase awareness and excitement about this project. NCC Environmental Services hopes to be able to offer displays such as a mini island in a fish tank for rooting display as well as example islands for guests to handle.
Along with island prototypes and plant propagation methods one of the biggest learning curves in the project thus far has been the setup of propagation ponds. Water levels were very difficult to manage as a gravity feed system was being used to fill the nursery/ propagation ponds. Theft of piping, as well as hot weather and high wind conditions led to the project almost losing 2 months of progress when the ponds dried up over the holiday period due to the water source level dropping below the level of the ponds. To counteract this, a floating cage was designed and constructed which is now being used as a floating nursery. All islands have now been launched directly into Vergenoegd dam and new floating island pods are growing under this protective cage, instead of in the nursery/ propagation ponds. Currently, there are three groups of islands consisting of different plant species and these are being monitored to see what grows best and how well each type of island works.
The nursery/ propagation ponds that were created as floating island nurseries initially, are now rather being kept as wetland stock plant nurseries for propagation, so that a ready supply of plants is available to create more floating islands and to assist with rehabilitation of farm dams. Several species are being propagated now, some growing and spreading much better than others. Any useful findings from these experiences will help us in offering more practical information in the guideline document.
ACHIEVING REAL GROWTH
This pilot project is exciting as it opens up so many possibilities for real growth of people and planet, which is part of NCC’s strategic philosophy. NCC will be working alongside our stakeholders to ensure that environmental education occurs throughout this project. Not only do farmers need to be educated about the benefits that they can experience by rehabilitating their farm dams, but also the local communities, children and workers need to understand the importance of attracting waterbirds and improving wetland biodiversity and consequently water quality.
Wetland birds could use the rehabilitated wetlands as corridors for their movement across the country. Indigenous wetland plant nurseries could be opened up around the country, to assist with rehabilitation efforts. NCC would love to see similar projects being rolled out. This is the first year of this 3 year project. Who knows what doors this project could open for the rehabilitation of wetlands across the Western Cape, or even across South Africa… Southern Africa… Africa!
Almost immediately results have been seen with insects, amphibians and importantly birds utilising the islands.