On dairy farming, bush clearing, and birds – August 2019

I awoke to the ‘woop woop’ calls of the herdsmen on the neighbouring dairy farm, chivvying the cattle along to the milking sheds in the darkness before dawn, and then out into the pastures again. They do this every day of the year, in all weathers, and again in the evening. The individual cow does not give milk all year round, but their reproductive and milk-producing cycles are managed so that the majority of the herd are in milk on any day, to maintain a constant supply to the market.

It rained gently for much of the night, but the taps were dry in the morning, and then because it was overcast all day and the borehole pump is solar powered, water only began to trickle through late in the day. I was not much inconvenienced though, because from old habit I keep water reserves at my camp.

I had a break, then, from my watering chores. Most days I do a round of widely scattered young fruit and nut trees, part of my effort to be useful around the property while I am camping free of charge (until a cottage is built on my erf).

The process of getting a cottage built is very complicated. I am co-owner of the erf (together with a long-time friend) and we are to have separate cottages built there, positioned closely enough as to resemble a single unit. After exploring many options, we have both settled on modular steel structures, pre-fabricated with all fittings and fully furnished. Nevertheless, the various tasks to be completed before our modules can be dropped into place are daunting.

The erf is densely covered with bush, especially the spindly, fast growing pioneer known as Renosterbos, which is now mostly standing head high. The botanical report for the erf (by Carol and Bart Logie) describes it and its surroundings as overgrown and moribund and recommended a controlled burn to not only mitigate the fire hazard, but to allow new growth and greater diversity. Bush encroachment of this nature typically occurs where the natural regime of grazing by animals and periodic fires has been disrupted.

The estate management is not equipped nor in favour of burning, and instead I am carrying out the alternative of physical clearing of the Renosterbos. This may not be the best option, because once cut, the bush has to be removed, which removes nutrients from the site (leaving it there to dry out and eventually mulch would increase the fire hazard instead of reducing it). If it were burnt, the ash would return to the soil. The clearing of bush and probably a couple of trees is in any case necessary to create space on the erf where a pair of cottages can be placed, and that links to the next complication, the site development plan, which in turn is a necessary part of the submissions for approval of the development to the estate management, Nature Conservation and the local council.

We have had various and sometimes conflicting accounts of what the site development plan involves.  In one version, it may be drawn up by a draughtsman using the survey data for the erf, without necessarily visiting the erf. That would not suit, because only by standing on the erf can one see where to position each unit to best capture the views from there, and also to have least impact on the remaining vegetation after the Renosterbos has been cleared.

The instrument I am using to clear the Renosterbos is called a brush-cutter, a sort of long-handled heavier version of a panga, not unlike the pike carried by mediaeval foot-soldiers, for the purpose of cleaving open the iron helmets of their foes. It is too heavy to swing laterally like a panga, instead one brings it crashing down from overhead like a pick-axe, to destroy whatever is in its path. The bush is fighting back though, and I am usually bleeding from scratches on legs and arms by the end of each session.

Each morning I first go for a ramble about the property for the purpose of ongoing monitoring of bird species diversity, and to submit fieldcards to the atlas project on a five day cycle. This property occupies the north-west corner of the relevant ‘pentad’ or grid-cell for the atlas. Other atlas observers who have contributed to this grid-cell over time have mostly paid attention to the southern and eastern part of the pentad, nearer town, which comprises mostly pastures and lucern fields with occasional stands of alien trees. Among the birds most commonly reported by those observers are Black Crows, Grey-backed Cisticolas, Stonechats and Orange-throated Longclaws, whereas in my observations (concentrated at but not exclusive to Honeyville) the most frequently seen species are Sombre Bulbuls, Bar-throated Apalis, Neddicky and Greater Double-collared Sunbirds. Among the birds previously reported for the pentad but which I had not yet found were Cape Canaries, but I tracked them down today. They are often found among stands of alien trees, and I found a group of them in a small stand of pines in a far corner of the property.

Brown-hooded Kingfisher
Cape Sugarbird

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