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Our grasslands are ancient stable features with a rich assemblage of plants and not just an early stage in the formation of forests
by Nicholas Zaloumis

rasslands are a quintessential veld of sub-Saharan Africa, and constitute the second largest vegetation type in South Africa, but only 2.2% of grassland systems are formally protected. Part of the reason for this is that grasslands have largely been ignored from a conservation perspective. Worldwide, grasslands have suffered from a case of mistaken identity. They were thought to have been largely created by iron-age humans clearing forests and have been considered as a secondary part of the landscape preceding forest vegetation through the process of succession. Over the last two hundred years there has almost been a complete disappearance of grasslands in many countries such as Australia and North America and the remaining fragments are considered as some of the most threatened ecosystems in the world. For South Africa, the biome has so far been relatively unaffected with only 30% of its extent considered to have been irreversibly altered. However, this does not mean their future is certain as changes in their land-use result in the remaining portions becoming increasingly fractured. A valuable resource The majority of South Africas altered grasslands have followed the same fate as that of the rest of the world in terms of disturbance. Urban expansion and agriculture have been the leading culprits, with the forestry

and mining industries playing minor, yet significant roles in landscape alteration. Since grasslands are the countrys most economically productive landscape, the pressure from human activity on this resource is unlikely to decrease. Mining applications are increasing with the demand for more energy and coal, and the forestry industry is expanding. These are, however, not the only resources which grasslands provide. Although less obvious economically, grasslands provide a number of vital life-sustaining ecosystem services which are only beginning to be appreciated. Included among these are carbon storage, soil and grazing, water provision and the moderation of water flow. Our grasslands are also a rich source for plants of potential pharmaceutical, horticultural and aesthetic value which can greatly benefit our economy. In short grasslands provide benefits to our society in ways that are still underappreciated. Amazingly little is known about the natural functioning of grasslands. Most of our knowledge about grasslands has been from a livestock farming perspective. As our focus begins to change, conservationists realize that these ancient systems are far older than most forest systems. Our appreciation of grasslands has resulted in an effort to increase awareness of their diversity. Unlike much of the rest of the world, we still stand a good chance of saving a significant portion

TOP: Natural coastal grassland-forest mosaic above the Eastern Shores of Lake St. Lucia. Photo: N. Zaloumis. ABOVE: A bulb of the Sabie Crinum (Crinum acaule) measuring 15 x14 x 27 cm, one of the largest bulbs we found in the study. The plant is found in dense patches in coastal grasslands. Photo: N. Zaloumis. BELOW: Pygmaeothamnus chamaedendrum is an underground tree. That is, a woody plant with an extensive underground stem structure supporting a number of reduced vegetative and fertile parts above ground. They are common in all grasslands in southern and eastern Africa. Photo: N. Zaloumis.

of our grasslands and even leading the way towards a more sustainable interaction with this natural environment. Understanding grassland dynamics will not only help us manage grasslands better, but also assist in the restoration of degraded landscapes.

Did you know that at a scale of 1000 m2 grasslands are comparable to the fynbos in terms of species richness and that they are second only to fynbos in total species richness?
Rehabilitation vs restoration One should not confuse rehabilitation with restoration in an ecological context. Although the term has often been used interchangeably, there is a distinct difference between the two terms. Both focus on the ecosystem before human related disturbance and use it as a reference to try to return degraded areas into an improved state. Rehabilitation projects aim to restore a functioning ecosystem by attempting to re-establish any processes, productivity and services it formally had or provided. Active rehabilitation would involve the revegetation of disturbed land to prevent erosion or the removal of invasive species to clear choking water catchments as in the Working for Water program. On the other hand restoration projects further aspire to re-instate the ecosystems previous biotic integrity in other words, its species composition and community structure. Restoration would involve re-establishing what once was. Grassland rehabilitation is often practiced, while restoration efforts are rare, costly and mostly limited in success. A rich biodiversity Grasslands are not just grass, food for livestock or an aesthetic sight to enjoy from a distance. There are a myriad of plants that make up the vast biodiversity that you can find if you just take a minute to look closely amongst the grass, not to mention the diverse wildlife that flourishes in this type of environment. The herbaceous flowering plant species, also known as forbs, will be the first to catch your eye and can in some cases make up over 90% of an areas diversity. Forbs in southern African grasslands have adapted to this fire-driven system by developing underground storage organs such as bulbs, corms and tubers. They are stimulated by the fire to rapidly re-sprout from these organs and so, three weeks after a burn and after a bit of rain, you will find a fantastic floristic display of yellows, whites, blues, oranges and purples from these plants.

Pristine versus recovering grasslands iSimangaliso Wetland Park in northern KwaZulu-Natal features some of South Africas largest remaining pockets of pristine coastal grasslands where you will come across some exquisite examples of flowering forbs. It was on the Eastern Shores of Lake St Lucia within the park that I experienced this immense variety of colours and shapes firsthand. From this a study came about in which we investigated the effect that forestry plantations had on the local grassland system. From the 1950s large numbers of pine trees had been planted throughout the Eastern Shores. From 1991 to 2006 these plantations were removed in stages and we had the chance not only to examine grassland plant biodiversity, but also to explore the differences between restored and natural grassland. We could then determine whether there had been any improvement in plant diversity since the pines were removed 17 years ago by exploring the different recovery ages as successional stages. In the spring of 2008 we surveyed 64 plots for biodiversity within both natural and restored sites. At first glance there was little visual difference between the unburnt restored and natural sites, besides the rotting stumps left from the removed pines. However, a closer study of these sites revealed that they differed greatly in diversity and composition of wildflowers. Sampling revealed 163 forbs species occurring in natural grassland of which 128 species where unique to these areas. Many of these species had magnificent flowers of all shapes and sizes, particularly in areas that had recently been burnt. Most were re-sprouters with large underground storage organs the largest being a Crinum acaule bulb almost 25 cm long.

ABOVE: Chamaecrista comosa is a common flowering plant in the coastal grasslands. Photo: N. Zaloumis. BELOW: Rare and endemic toZululand in KwaZulu-Natal, Crinum acaule has the most amazing scent when open the perfume completely covers the area where they are found, flowering in groups, especially in the late afternoon. Photo: N. Zaloumis. BOTTOM: Pentanisia prunelloides. Photo: N. Zaloumis.

JUNE 2011



In contrast restored grassland was species-poor and substantially different in composition. Only 73 forbs were recorded, of which 38 species were unique to the recovering areas and were mostly weedy or exotic in nature. Most notable was the 130 species with underground storage organs that frequently featured throughout the natural grassland that were almost entirely absent in restored grassland. Recovering grassland only featured 36 species with storage organs which were sparse in their occurrence. This was emphasized in recently burnt restored sites which showed a large percentage of bare ground and very little resprouting response. We found no evidence of successional recovery in species richness or composition when comparing older and younger cleared sites. Thus, although these grasslands had been partly rehabilitated and gave the illusion of recovery, they are very far from their pristine condition. The vital forb re-sprouter component was missing from restored areas and dominant grass species differed between the different sites. Conserving what is left So why has there been so little recovery in these grasslands? Why has natural succession failed in grassland community recovery? The passive rehabilitation effort of just removing the pines is clearly insufficient by itself as a method of re-establishing natural grassland processes. Can more active restoration methods involving re-introduction of plants and seeds do a better job for recovering ecosystems? Grassland restoration is proving to be far more difficult than previously thought. As we begin to understand more about the complexities underlying our grassland systems we realize that full restoration requires far more than simply removing the disturbance,

such as by the clearing non-indigenous trees. We are beginning to realize that grasslands are not early successional stages but actually ancient stable features with a rich assemblage of plants and animals that are found nowhere else. Until we can overcome the difficulties of effectively restoring grasslands, we need to focus on conserving what is left. As we begin to resolve the grasslands mistaken identity do we still have time to step in and try to rescue the remnants, partly lost because of a disastrous misunderstanding? Did you know that at a scale of 1000 m2 grasslands are comparable to the fynbos in terms of species richness (see glossary) and that they are second only to fynbos in total species richness? We can no longer afford to ignore and continue to lose such a rich natural resource. I suggest that if you havent had the privilege of seeing the treasure trove held by pristine grasslands, go and check it out. It is truly a wonder to behold.

READING Society for Ecological Restoration International: Mucina, L. & Rutherford, M.C., eds. 2006. The vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Strelitzia 19. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria. SANBI Grassland Programme: Zaloumis, N.P & Bond, W.J. 2010. Grassland restoration after afforestation: No direction home? Austral Ecology. GET CONNECTED Nicholas Zaloumis is an MSc student at the University of Cape Town, working with William Bond. He can be contacted at

RIGHT FROM TOP TO BOTTOM: Freesia laxa, an uncommon white form. Gnidia kraussiana. Raphionacme galpinii. Trachyandra saltii. Photos: N. Zaloumis.

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? biodiversity The variation of life forms within a given ecosystem. See the Learning about Biodiversity section on page 79 of Veld & Flora June 2010. bulb An underground storage organ present in some plants. corm A swollen underground plant stem that serves as a storage organ used by some plants to survive adverse conditions. ecosystem services Services provided by ecosystems that benefit humans and are necessary for a healthy planet like oxygen production, water purification, pollination, soil formation and nutrient recycling. forb Any non-woody flowering plant that is not a grass herbaceous A plant that has no persistent woody stem above the ground. A herbaceous plant may be annual, biennial or perennial. mosaic A combination of diverse elements forming a more or less coherent whole. resources A countrys collective means of supporting itself or becoming wealthier, as represented by its reserves of minerals, productive land, water and other assets. succession The process by which a plant or animal community successively gives way to another until a stable climax is reached. species richness A measurement of how biodiverse a vegetation type is, calculated by dividing the total number of species by the surface area covered by that vegetation type. See Alice Nottens reply to a letter on page 44 of the March 2010 issue of Veld & Flora. tuber A fleshy underground stem or root which serves as food storage for re-growth during the next growing season and a means for asexual reproduction.