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From the ashes: The rehabilitation of Featherbed reserve

From the ashes: The rehabilitation of Featherbed reserve

The restoration of the Featherbed Reserve after the devastating fire of 2017 was a mammoth team effort. Each person here is proud of the role they have and still are playing on this journey, and it has certainly been a huge privilege,” says Nicole Tunmer, sales and marketing manager for the Featherbed Company, whom I meet before I take a trip to the reserve.

“We would not have been able to achieve what we’ve done without the vision of the owner and the management, without budget, and without the clean slate the fires presented to us. This was the ‘silver lining’ of the fire – the fact that almost everything was reduced to ashes.We have put a huge effort into the rehabilitation project ultimately in an effort to restore the biodiversity.” The reserve reopened on 1 December 2018.

Like sleeping on a featherbed

Featherbed, reserve, knysna

The ferry to the reserve.

Safely aboard the Rivercat Ferry at Knysna Waterfront, to make our crossing to the Featherbed Reserve, we cruise past luxury yachts and fishermen trying their luck on smaller boats. Mark Edwards, our tour guide, tells us as that the Knysna Estuary is the second-largest estuary in South Africa, iSimangaliso the largest.

We marvel at panoramic views of the approaching Knysna Heads and Thesen Island. At the Featherbed jetty, we make our way up the hill to two Unimogs each with a trailer, which transports us the rest of the way to the sandstone cliffs of the Western Head.

The name ‘Featherbed’ dates back to when British ships would sail along the coastline for trade purposes. Knysna’s plentiful supply of wood necessitated a stop, yet the mouth of the estuary at The Heads proved treacherous to many a hardened seafarer.

In rough weather, ships often had to wait outside the mouth for days before the conditions would allow safe entry. When they did manage to get through the mouth unscathed, they referred to the bay where they anchored inside the estuary as so calm and protected it was ‘like sleeping on a featherbed’. The name stuck.

Reserve rehabilitation

featherbed, Horticulturist, Martin Hatchuel

Horticulturist Martin Hatchuel points out various plant species to us.

After the 2017 Knysna fire, horticulturist Martin Hatchuel was asked to help with the rehabilitation of the reserve. Martin and I start the leisurely two-kilometre walk back to the jetty, and he tells me about the work the Featherbed Company has put into its rehabilitation.

“The fynbos had become very woody and thick in parts, but the fire solved that problem. Although 95 per cent of the rooikrans was destroyed in the blaze, many new seedlings began sprouting. And with the devastation of the plant life came a unique opportunity to remove the alien vegetation, particularly rooikrans, as well as other invasive species such as Port Jackson, black wattle, manatoka, khakibos and malpitte.”

In 1835, rooikrans was introduced to South Africa from Australia, and was planted in the Cape to stabilise sand dunes, and to prevent sand blowing onto crops. Rooikrans produces a huge amount of seed that is extremely hardy and can lie dormant in the soil for years.

An arduous task

Rooikrans, seedling, alien

Martin pulls
out a rooikrans seedling, one of many thousands that have sprouted after the fire.

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Faced with new rooikrans and other alien seedlings, the reserve was broken up into 900m² blocks to which various members of the newly employed Aliens Team of 15 were assigned. It was extremely labour-intensive, and the full team worked each block until it was cleared, and then moved on to the next area. Meticulous records were kept of quantities and types of plants removed.

An arduous task. In one area alone, 195 300 plants were removed in three and a half hours.

“It’s important to understand that a huge amount of the original fynbos seedbed remained after the fire, and these seeds germinated without any help from us, except for our removal of the alien-invasive competition,” Martin says. “We have very little Port Jackson here which is fortunate. It’s tricky to remove, so often requires poison.” Fortunately, rooikrans is much easier and I watch as he deftly extracts a plant.

However, not all the rooikrans was removed. After a visit by an entomologist, professor John H Hoffman of the biocontrol research programme at the University of Cape Town Plant Control Unit, John advised that it would be best to leave some rooikrans to act as host plants for a multivoltine midge (Dasineura dielsi) commonly known as a gall midge, which is specific to the rooikrans.

The larvae lay their eggs in the flower buds, and live in the florets, creating galls or swellings with a substance they secrete. The development of the gall stops seeds from forming, rendering the rooikrans infertile. Martin points out a rooikrans covered in these galls. The gall midge will ensure that any plants that do germinate will be unable to produce more seeds. It’s a natural solution to the problem.

Stabilising the slopes

Sausages, featherbed, knysna

‘Sausages’ made of photodegradable plastic net and filled with poplar shavings are stretched across the sandy slopes to stabilise them. Engineering student Alejandro Plasencia has created biodegradable fishing nets from similar material, to help stop aquatic mammals from getting trapped in lost trawling equipment

“After the fire, we were left with sandy slopes that needed to be stabilised,” he says. “To hold the soil, we tried a combination of mats and ‘sausages’ made of photodegradable plastic net filled with poplar shavings, but the mats made the soil too hot, and prevented germination of ground seeds and those sown by hydroseeding. It also caused those plants that did germinate to become chlorotic [yellowed] because they could not get to the sun, so we removed them.”

In small sections of the reserve, such as on the slope next to the Food Forest, the ‘sausages’ were stretched across the sandy slopes to stabilise them. Swales were dug behind each line of ‘sausages’ to trap rainwater. They were used in combination with harvested bitou plants grown in the reserve’s nursery, and sour figs harvested from the fynbos and planted as unrooted cuttings directly into the soil. The plants happily took root.

The reserve also received significant help from organisations like the Southern Cape Landowners Initiative, and numerous other environmentalists and rehabilitation specialists who gave their advice freely.

Then the Greenpop Foundation stepped in. Greenpop is a non-profit organisation with the mission to plant trees and activate environmental stewards across Southern Africa, and has planted more than 100 000 indigenous and fruit trees in the region. With a major financial contribution from the Featherbed Company, Greenpop provided 1 600 trees and 300 volunteers to plant them. A huge undertaking.

Returning to glory

Featherbed, knysna, rehabilitation

New growth rises in the beautiful Featherbed reserve.

All the effort provided exciting results. Fynbos began to reappear, and there are now more than 300 categorised species and at least 60 more still to be identified. Watsonias, paintbrush lilies, wild sage, candelabra lilies, the bright-green sedge grass, and many more. The partially burnt candlewoods and milkwoods have sprung to life, and birds species such as the Osprey, Pied Kingfisher, Brown-hooded Kingfisher, African Fish Eagle, Red-billed Wood Hoopoe are being sighted.

Our trail back to the jetty winds along the coastline next to a calm turquoise sea, and by the looks of things it’s a perfect day for entering The Heads. Dodging tourists posing for selfies, we arrive at caves where dripstone stalactites frame the sea and waves beyond. Then we head off to Coffin Bay, where the tide is too high to see the rock formations or ‘bones’ that look like the ribs of a shipwreck, and which gave the bay its name.

It’s midday and hot when we arrive at the restaurant, and an ice-cold lager is most welcome before we head back to Knysna Waterfront. From the top of the ferry, we have a 360-degree view of the estuary and lagoon and, as my cameras click madly, a German tour guide refers to me as ‘mamarazzi’.

Over coffee, Nicole Tunmer says, “Despite having to close the reserve for 18 months as a result of the fire, not a single staff member was retrenched.” Featherbed now offers visitors a great opportunity to enjoy its returned glory, and is a supreme example of rising from the ashes.

Featherbed Private Nature Reserve
044 382 1693, [email protected]

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