Wetlands – why all the Fuss?

By Anina Lee, Whale Coast Conservation

The Hermanus Botanical Society has chosen “wetlands” as the theme for their 2013 Flower Festival in the Fernkloof Nature Reserve in September. The festival will highlight the importance of wetlands from a biodiversity perspective.
Wetlands are the link between water and the land. “Wetlands” is the collective term for the marshes, swamps and bogs in depressions and along the edges of streams, rivers, lakes and coastlines.

Wetlands have been identified as the third most important life support system on earth.  They are important habitats for many species of birds, amphibians, fish, invertebrates and wetland-associated mammals, such as otters, mongooses and small buck.  

Wetland plants absorb nutrients from the surrounding water, acting as nutrient ‘sponges’ and assist in the removal of excess nutrients from the water.  The slow passage of water through wetlands means that they play an important role in flow regulation, reducing the rate at which rainfall accumulates in lower-lying areas and reducing the erosive power of surface runoff.  The roots of wetland plants are excellent binders of the soil, and thus reduce bank erosion.  Wetland soils retain water for long periods of time, contributing towards the constancy of water supply.

However, despite the ecological, economic and educational value of wetlands, it has been estimated that over half of South Africa’s wetlands have already been destroyed and lost, while those that remain are among South Africa’s most threatened natural areas.

Let us have a look at the state of wetlands of just a small area of Hermanus – the Fernkloof Nature Reserve and the urban areas downhill from the reserve.

 In days gone by the run-off from the coastal mountain range resulted in a coastal plain that was rich in wetland. This provided excellent grazing and the first grazing rights on the farm Mosselrivier was obtained in 1724. This farm was to the west of Hermanus township, from where the Marine hotel is today up to the Klein River.

Paradoxically, it was partly due the ecosystem services provided by these wetlands (and the excellent fishing in the Bay) that also led to their destruction. Soon more settlers arrived and with them came the need for development.

The eastern side of Mossel River (now Voëlklip) and Poole’s Bay (the present Eastcliff) were both surveyed in 1893. The two “villages” developed side by side, Voëlklip mainly as a holiday destination. Hermanus amalgamated with Poole’s Bay and Voëlklip in 1940.

With this urban development also came the draining of wetlands of the coastal plain. Frank Woodvine writes: “I was told the Eucalypts just below the Fernkloof Nature Reserve were planted by Jack Poole of Poole’s Bay as a timber production venture, along with a forest of pines in the area, probably around the 1940s.” These trees have now made way for the Fernkloof Golf Estate development.

“There was always a problem with ground water in the suburb.  Ion Williams told me of an elderly gentleman sitting on his stoep, G & T in hand when his swimming pool popped up out of the ground due to high water table, causing the man some consternation .The concrete channel installed near the Visitor Centre was constructed to carry away flood water and allow the suburb to be developed.”

Even today there are still several springs that bubble up in the Fernkloof Estate during the rainy season.

Fortunately, open space remained on the coastal plain as the Hermanus Golf Course. A small but precious wetland area of 11 ha remains formally conserved here, commonly known as the Flat Street Wetland. The water quality of the wetlands is constantly monitored and a project is about to be launched to assess their ecological health by surveying the frog species in the wetland. It is already known that the clicking stream frog, river frog and De Villiers’s moss frog find a home here and it is thought that the common platanna, arum lily frog and raucous toad will also be found.

The three most threatened frogs in our area are the micro frog, Cape platanna and the Western Leopard Toad. Whether by some miracle any of these might be found in our local wetlands remains to be seen. The largest population of Western Leopard Toad in South Africa was until the mid-nineties found in Kleinmond, after which they disappeared, probably due to destruction of their habitat by development.

An important coastal wetland area between the “scout camp” and the Vogelgat River seepage area is now also conserved as part of the Fernkloof Nature Reserve.

Our local wetlands also support a wealth of flora. The most dominant plants typical of Overstrand wetlands are the marsh daisy, Osmitopsis astericoides, restios (including the rare Platycaulos major), Erica perspicua and Berzelia lanuginosa.  Erica capillaris was last seen in Hermanus in Arc Street forty years ago, and was thought to be locally extinct.  This species now inhabits the damp seasonal wetland fringes of the Flat Street wetland area. Another species of local importance in Flat Street is Erica villosa, which has a very restricted distribution.

Wetlands provide opportunities for popular recreational activities, especially birding. For example, an estimated 50 million people worldwide spend approximately US$10 million each year observing and photographing wetlands-dependent bird species. In the Overstrand the Important Birding Areas associated with wetlands are the Botvlei area, including Rooisand and the Lamloch Swamps; and the Klein River Estuary and associated wetlands on the coast just east of Voëlklip.

Whatever one’s interest, be it ecosystem services, zoology, botany or birding, our wetlands have it all.

Erica perspicua

My thanks to the following people who contributed information for this article: Frank
Woodvine, Sheraine van Wyk, Lee Burman, Geordie Ratcliff, Pat Miller.