Summary This vast area (c. 1 050 000 ha) is centred on the towns of Volksrust and Wakkerstroom. The previously proposed, but not yet declared, Biosphere Reserve comprises some 800 private farms, several municipalities, conservancies, Biodiversity Stewardship Protected Environments and a considerable amount of State-owned land. A series of farms and conservancies in the Harrismith, Vrede and Memel districts of the Free State is included. The area comprises gentle rolling hills on the South African plateau (1 700 - 1 800 m a.s.l.) that are broken regularly by parts of the Mpumalanga Drakensberg escarpment, small ranges such as the Gemsbokberg (2 095 m a.s.l.), Versamelberg (2 139 m a.s.l.) and Balelesberg (2 055 m a.s.l.), as well as the higher peaks around Wakkerstroom, such as Ntshele (2 291 m a.s.l.), Ossewakop (2 170 m a.s.l.), Kanonkop (2 112 m a.s.l.) and KwaMandlangampisi (2 266 m a.s.l.).
Site description This vast area is centred on the towns of Volksrust and Wakkerstroom. The proposed Biosphere Reserve comprises some 800 private farms, several municipalities and conservancies and a considerable amount of state-owned land. The site comprises gentle rolling hills on the South African plateau (1,700–1,800 m) that are broken regularly by parts of the Mpumalanga Drakensberg escarpment, small ranges such as the Gemsbokberg (2,095 m), Versamelberg (2,139 m) and Balelesberg (2,055 m), and higher peaks around Wakkerstroom, such as Ntshele (2,291 m), Ossewakop (2,170 m), Kanonkop (2,112 m) and KwaMandlangampisi (2,266 m). The area covers several catchments and holds many perennial rivers and wetlands.
The following wetlands are of international importance and deserve the highest possible conservation attention. Wakkerstroom vlei (27°22’S 30°07’E), which lies on the border of the town, is a marsh, predominantly a mosaic of Carex and Leersia stands. Seekoeivlei (27°35’S 29°35’E), a Ramsar Site, is situated in the north-eastern Free State, 500 m from the town of Memel. It consists of a flood-plain holding numerous seasonally flooded oxbow lakes, which are drained by the Klip river, a tributary of the Vaal. Heyshope Dam (27°00’S 30°30’E), a proposed Ramsar Site, is a large impoundment in the Assegaai river catchment of south-eastern Mpumalanga. The privately owned Vanger Natural Heritage Site (27°52’S 29°40’E) lies about 30 km south-east of Memel. Blood river vlei (27°47’S 30°35’E) is situated 20 km south-west of Vryheid.Several other small important wetlands are scattered throughout the IBA. The terrestrial vegetation is dominated by some of the finest rolling grasslands remaining in South Africa. The most dominant grassland-type is moist sandy highveld grassland. The eastern boundary of the proposed Biosphere Reserve holds north-eastern mountain grassland. Small patches of moist clay highveld grassland grow on the black vertic clays that are scattered throughout the area, mostly in and around the Wielspruit catchment. Rocky slopes, gullies and ravines favour the development of thickets dominated by Leucosidea, which forms dense monospecific stands in places. Particularly in the Pongola Bush Nature Reserve, Ncundu Bush Nature Reserve and several privately owned areas along the escarpment, the thicket has developed into Afromontane forest, holding trees of Podocarpus, Rhus, Trichocladus, Curtisia, Halleria and Kiggelaria.
Key Biodiversity See Box and Tables 2 and 3 for key species. This area holds a significant proportion of South Africa’s small known population of the globally endangered Sarothrura ayresi. Three wetlands within the proposed Biosphere Reserve are known or thought regularly to hold Sarothrura ayresi in seasons of suitable rainfall. Crex crex is also regular at some of the reserve’s wetlands. Seekoeivlei supports large numbers of a rich diversity of resident and migratory waterbirds. The site also holds all three of South Africa’s crane species, including important numbers of Grus carunculatus. Heyshope Dam is known to hold extremely large numbers of at least 52 species of resident, migratory and nomadic waterbirds. Small portions of the dam, which are regularly counted, hold up to 45,000 waterbirds, suggesting that the entire system may hold an extrapolated total of some 100,000 individuals.
Of the terrestrial birds, most of South Africa’s threatened and endemic grassland species have their core populations centred on the proposed Biosphere Reserve. An estimated 85% of the global population of Heteromirafra ruddi is thought to occur within the proposed reserve. Spizocorys fringillaris, which also occurs within this site, is highly localized within moist clay highveld grassland on black clays or dolerite soils. Anthus chloris favours mid-altitude, well-developed lightly grazed or ungrazed grassland. The largest breeding colonies of Geronticus calvus in the world occur within the proposed Biosphere Reserve. Large numbers also forage and roost throughout the area. Grus paradisea, Neotis denhami and Eupodotis senegalensis are widespread at low densities. Glareola nordmanni occasionally occurs in very large numbers during the austral summer. On exposed outcrops and rocky slopes at higher altitudes, Anthus crenatus, Geocolaptes olivaceus, Saxicola bifasciata and Monticola explorator are common. Promerops gurneyi is found around proteoid woodland on the escarpment, and Ciconia nigra breeds on steep cliffs. Pongola Bush Nature Reserve and other forest patches hold Cossypha dichroa, Serinus scotops, Lioptilus nigricapillus and Zoothera gurneyi.
Non-bird biodiversity: North-eastern mountain grassland holds 78 endemic and near-endemic plant species on the Black Reef quartzites, and there are a further 31 endemics on dry dolomite. Most of these endemics are present within the site. Many endemic animals also occur here.
References Allan et al. (1983, 1997), Cowan and Marneweck (1996), de Wet (1991), Herholdt and Grobler (1987), Hockey et al. (1988), Kotze et al. (1994), Pocock and Uys (1967), Stoltz and Geyser (1973), Tarboton (1984c, 1992, 1995a,b, 1997a,b,c), Tarboton et al. (1987), Taylor (1994, 1997a,b).
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