Pilot project for verges

Dr Clive McDowell takes a picture of a rare plant on the M3 verge.

Ecologists are working with City officials on a flagship project to protect indigenous flora along road reserves.

According to environmental scientist Dr Clive McDowell this is potentially a first for South Africa and a standard-bearer for a network of corridors of rare and endangered plants spreading like tentacles across the country.

Along with a diversity of these plants comes a microcosm of pollinators: bees, birds, butterflies, ladybirds, mice and more.

This is the dream of a group of local ecologists. It began in September 2014 when Dr McDowell, formerly of UCT and UWC, met at his Constantia home with UCT ecologist Dr David Gwynne-Evans, of Newlands.

Both men are passionate about saving indigenous flora along roadside verges, and they decided to start with the strip abutting Zonnestraal Farm, where the removal of several pines had let in more light allowing long-forgotten indigenous vegetation to emerge.

Assisted by ecologist Stuart Hall, of Meadowridge, and indigenous re-vegetation specialist Alex Lansdowne, of Fairlands, they did a full floral survey from Wynberg Hill to the M43 intersection.

The Bulletin joined Dr McDowell on Thursday October 19 to walk the 1km stretch. Two species were encountered that have not been seen among the 127 identified so far.

Three of the total identified species have South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) red ratings and include the silver tree, leucadendron argenteum, which, according to Dr McDowell, prefers granite slopes now mostly under vineyards.

The road reserves could also be home to Wynberg conebush, leucadendron grandiflora, which has become extinct in the wild, although Dr McDowell has spotted a couple of species on Wynberg Hill.

Following an on-site meeting in September with City officials and landscaper Richmond Rizimati to discuss the problem of unplanned mowing on the road reserve, it was agreed to create a no-mow zone to allow road-side flora to thrive. And the City’s Neil Fortes agreed to give a few days’ notice ahead of mowing.

Eddie Andrews, mayoral committee member for area south, said the City’s recreation and parks department had always supported conservation initiatives on road reserves or public open spaces.

“We avoid mowing spring flowers, and we have a memorandum of understanding with the biodiversity management section, regulating maintenance activities during the breeding season of the endangered western leopard toad.”

Mr Andrews said it was not easy to create natural areas in suburbia because most residents preferred manicured areas over the unkempt appearance of fynbos, which could also trap litter, pose a fire hazard or serve as a refuge for vagrants.

Mr Hall, who will be known to residents for his work and walks on Meadowridge common, said that in some places it was only necessary to prevent mowing during the peak flowering season.

“In other places there are some fynbos shrubs surviving, even a few species threatened with extinction and not found elsewhere in the local area, and in such places, weedy grasses are usually less of a problem and mowing should be stopped completely, such as is the case on Meadowridge common.”

Dr Gwynne-Evans said roadside maintenance beyond 2m from the roadside threatened to wipe out a beautiful and very unique floral heritage.

“It undermines the integrity of an ancient and diverse remnant flora and associated suite of animals that have survived against all odds between our gardens, houses and agricultural fields.”

Dr McDowell is annoyed that two signs on the road reserve – posted in November last year and stating: “No mowing spring flowers blooming/ seeding” – were removed virtually overnight, and extensive mowing was done the following weekend.

Mr Andrews said the signs had probably been sold for scrap.

The City’s mowing contractors had to comply with specifications in their tenders on how and when to cut the grass, he said.

However, following the site visit it was agreed mowing and bush cutting would be confined to within 2m of the road edge.

Dr Gwynne-Evans said once indigenous vegetation was disturbed by mowing, brush-cutting or grading, it was replaced by a pernicious cocktail of weeds and invasive species.

“The solution is to create as little disturbance as possible and to allow the woody indigenous vegetation to return.”

Dr McDowell believes natural vegetation corridors should be included when building new roads. He and his friends will continue to monitor what comes up on the verge on Wynberg Hill.