Pushing the boundaries of science at Vergelegen

Vergelegen Wine Estate MD, Don Tooth.

An historic wine estate in Somerset West might not appear to be synonymous with cutting-edge scientific discoveries, but 317-year-old Vergelegen has hosted field researchers undertaking ground-breaking work for over a decade.

Local and international scientists visiting the estate have investigated subjects as diverse as Argentinian ants, Nguni cattle, frogs, grasshoppers, bontebok, alien plant management and water quality.

Following fires in January, researchers have also found Vergelegen to be an ideal site to investigate the post-fire recruitment of natural and alien plants, how Proteaceae compete after fire, and when and how insects return to these burnt areas.

Numerous scientific papers have been published in local and international journals and research findings are implemented into Vergelegen’s environmental management plan where applicable.

Vergelegen MD Don Tooth explains that Anglo American acquired the estate in 1987 as a showcase of the best of South African heritage, culture and environment, to be shared with the nation. As part of this initiative, a Centre of Learning Excellence was established.

Representatives of six Western Cape tertiary institutions, plus overseas universities such as Bristol and Marburg, have undertaken field research on the farm. Four doctorates and seven Master’s degrees had been completed by 2016.

Interest from the scientific community has been supported by the burgeoning animal and plant populations at Vergelegen.

These have grown rapidly in number and species diversity, thanks to an extensive programme of clearing invasive alien vegetation and facilitating land rehabilitation.

To help monitor the post-clearing ecosystem recovery, Vergelegen conducts monthly bird counts, identifies wild flowers and monitors wildlife movement, using infra-red camera systems. Species such as the Cape leopard, caracal, grey rhebok and spotted genet are regularly viewed on the footage, reports Jacques van Rensburg, Vergelegen’s environmental project manager.

The farm’s alien vegetation control programme is believed to be the largest private conservation undertaking in the country. Since the programme was launched in 2004, 2 000 hectares of a planned total of 2 200 hectares have been cleared, says Mr Tooth. “This project has not only created at least 230 jobs and many opportunities for worker training, it has supported a habitat for numerous species of mammals, birds, amphibians and insects to thrive.”

In recognition of its commitment to conserving the Cape’s biodiversity for future generations, Vergelegen was the first local wine farm to receive championship status in the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative in 2005. It also received a Mail & Guardian Greening the Future award.

Some of the farm’s habitats and inhabitants that are exciting the scientific community include:

Mammals: Animals include numerous antelope species, Cape leopard, caracal, honey badgers, snake weasels, silver foxes and spotted genet;

Bontebok: Once considered the rarest antelope in the world, these thrive at Vergelegen and now number 34 animals.

Birds: The estate has recorded over 145 bird species, with frequent sightings of Verreaux eagles, fish eagles and malachite sunbirds. Secretary birds and blue cranes breed on the farm and visitors include steppe buzzards from Russia and yellow-billed kites from North Africa;

Plants: Over 279 plant species have been recorded on the farm, including 22 on the Red Data List;

Wetlands: Eighty hectares of rehabilitated wetlands host Wachendorfia, Watsonia and Aristea, varieties of Ericas and endemic Leucodendrons.

Lourens River: This is the only South African river that is a protected area, and 10 of a total of 20km run through the estate.

Vineyards: A pioneering project to eradicate leaf roll virus began in 1999. Leaf roll virus diminishes the quality and volume of South African harvests and eventually vines become uneconomical and must be uprooted.

Cape Leopard Trust (CLT): The estate makes up a portion of the CLT’s Boland Project study area, which stretches over 3 000km².

Renosterveld: Some 140 hectares of rehabilitated land is renosterveld, of which only 4% remains in South Africa.

“The size and variety of Vergelegen’s plant, fauna and bird populations are proof that land degradation and threatened extinction can be reversed,” says Mr Tooth.

“It has been a rich journey of discovery working with scientists and environmental experts. We are happy to share our learnings with farmers, educators and other stakeholders who want to learn more about sustainable farming and investing in the land for future generations.”

Vergelegen is open to the public Monday to Sunday from 9.30am to 5pm, with the last entry at 4pm.

Entry is R10 for adults and R5 for pensioners and pupils. Pensioners free on Mondays.

For more information, visit www.vergelegen.co.za or email info@vergelegen.co.za