Vergelegen closes the loop

Godfrey Gomwe, director of Anglo American SA; Vergelegen CEO Don Tooth; Environmental MEC Anton Bredell; and Norman Mbazima, deputy chairman of Anglo American SA, with portions of the last standing alien tree to be felled at Vergelegen wine estate.

The greater portion of Vergelegen wine estate in Somerset West, 1 900 ha of the 3 000ha property, has been declared a private nature reserve, bringing to fruition the vision of corporate owner, Anglo America, to create an untouchable legacy which showcases the complexity and magnificence of the Cape Floral Kingdom, the species-richest, yet smallest of all the floral kingdoms.

Speaking at a ceremony on Vergelegen last Thursday, which saw the last two alien trees on the property symbolically felled by chainsaw, Western Cape Environmental Affairs MEC, Anton Bredell, announced that he had signed the final paperwork giving effect to the declaration, and all that remained to be done is promulgation by publication of a notice in the Government Gazette.

This marks the conclusion of a project spanning almost 23 years, which has culminated in the virtual eradication of alien plant species from the farm. The alien clearing environmental project, which encompasses 2 200ha of the farm, was initially funded out of farm trading profits, but in 2004 Anglo recognised the importance and magnitude of the undertaking, and funded it thereafter.

In pursuit of transparency and in order to engage external expertise, the Vergelegen board formed a trust in 1995, mandated to develop and implement a plan to remove and control all alien vegetation. The Trust, which developed and managed the planning for the project until 2004, comprised an equal number of management and external representatives.

In his formal presentation, Vergelegen CEO, Don Tooth, spoke of the ancillary benefits of the environmental project. An average of 137 jobs each year have been created, peaking at 300 and currently at 75.

A key focus has been on skills development and knowledge transfer, in technical and operational skills, health and safety training, and business skills, which has enabled many of the teams trained during the project to move on and start their won businesses. NCC Environmental Services managing director, Dean Ferreira, attested to this: “I’ve encountered a number of the teams who have moved on form here, and the quality of their training and skills is respected in the industry.”

NCC Environmental Services, under Mr Ferreira, played a key consultancy role over the years as the environmental project progressed, and NCC’s Hot Shot wildland firefighting crew is based permanently at Vergelegen.

Whereas Anglo American has divested itself of most non-core assets over the years, it chose to retain ownership of Vergelegen, because of the opportunity it offered “to create a lasting legacy for our children and our grandchildren,” according to Anglo American South Africa deputy chairman, Norman Mbazima, who spoke at the tree felling ceremony. “We do not see the money we have spent on this project over the years, as a cost. We see it as an investment, but that aside, it’s never been about the money. It’s always been about the vision of what we could do here.”

Three major fires devastated Vergelegen – 1997, 2009 and 2017 – necessitating re-clearing of the alien plants that sprang up after the fires. Significantly, after each fire, the alien regrowth has declined progressively, whereas at the outset of the project, the alien plant infestation was between 80 000 and 100 000 stems per hectare.

The 2017 fire swept through the property in three days, whereas in 2009, when the alien plant infestation was significantly higher, it burned for three weeks. Fynbos has to burn but at specific interval. Alien infestation means more frequent and much hotter fires, which compromise the fynbos seed-bank. After the 2017 fire, alien regrowth was negligible, according to Vergelegen farm manager, Les Naidoo, who has played a key role in the project over the years.

Vergelegen is amongst the largest private nature reserves in the country, according the managing director, Don Tooth, who has been at the forefront of the alien clearing project since its inception. Determined to preserve what had been created, Anglo American asked estate management to find a suitable vehicle to protect it in perpetuity.

“We engaged with Cape Nature,” Mr Tooth said, “and the project was audited, which identified 15 hectares of critically endangered Lourensford Alluvium Fynbos and 105 hectares of critically endangered Swartland Shale Renosterveld. The International Union for Conservation of Nature believes this vegetation faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. CapeNature’s legal team is finalising the documentation that will allow this declaration to be registered against the estate’s title deeds in perpetuity. This means that everything we’ve done, all the work we have put in, it doesn’t matter who comes along, they are not going to be able to undo it.”

Mr Tooth added that this is the largest private alien clearing project in Southern Africa.

But the benefits are not restricted to the very necessary eradication of alien plants. The bird species count has gone from 80 in 1995, to 152. Insect life has increased dramatically, with a concomitant growth in the populations of natural predators, which has allowed the estate to reduce by 75% its use of insecticide sprays, Mr Tooth said. Wetlands, 80ha in extent, have regenerated as the water-hungry alien plants have been indefatigably uprooted, and streams are flowing where they were not known to exist.

The natural diversity has also attracted scientists and students and Vergelegen has shared its knowledge and facilities through the establishment of an informal “Centre of Learning Excellence”. To date 22 formal qualifications have been obtained from work done during this project, 17 from local institutions and five from international universities.

Bolander spoke to Mr Bredell after the tree-felling ceremony. “This is a remarkable achievement, one from which we can learn a great deal. I do hope that this project is fully documented, so that it can become a best practice blueprint for other private landowners, and public landowners at all three levels of government,” he said.

“For me it’s a combination of joy and emotion. It’s a point I thought at one time we’d never get to,” Mr Tooth said, “and to see that last tree fall, was a surreal moment for me in every sense of the word. It is the culmination of a huge amount of effort. It’s not about me, not about Anglo, it’s about the many people who worked so very hard to make this project a success. And the fact that it is now going to be there for generations to come just makes it wow.”

Mr Naidoo had this to say when the last tree fell: “I’m glad to see that it is gone, I’m glad to see Vergelegen alien-free in terms of standing vegetation, and whatever is in the ground, believe me, we’re ready for it, and when it comes up, we will remove it, and we’ll make sure at some time in the future, that we eradicate all aliens on the property.”