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World Wetlands Day: SA wine farm shows the way

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Wetlands are often overlooked, neglected and abused – and yet they provide essential eco-services for water and food security. They are also among the most threatened natural areas in the world. Image credit: WWF

World Wetlands Day: SA wine farm shows the way

Wetlands are often overlooked, neglected and abused – and yet they provide essential eco-services for water and food security. They are also among the most threatened natural areas in the world.

This World Wetlands Day on 2 February 2022, the call to action is to invest more financial, human and political capital to save the world’s wetlands from disappearing and to restore those that have been degraded.

Although wetlands cover a small percentage of the Earth’s surface – in South Africa that number is a mere 2.4% – they are rich in nature and vital to human life. The plants that thrive in wetland areas help to purify, store and release water and prevent flooding. In many parts of the world, wetlands are the lifeblood for fisheries and agriculture.

The Papenkuils wetland (place of reeds), in the Breede River catchment between Rawsonville and Worcester below the Brandvlei dam in the Western Cape, South Africa, is an excellent example of a wetland where restoration work is taking place.

Not so long ago, Papenkuils was home to elephants and hippos but although these large animals are locally extinct, it remains a biodiversity hotspot. This is the largest wetland in the Breede catchment and a biodiversity hotspot with endangered Breede Alluvium Fynbos vegetation and at least seven Red Listed plant species.

Common to many wetlands around the world, among the threats to Papenkuils are pollution from agricultural runoff, over-abstraction of water (some of which is diverted to the Brandvlei dam), human-made fires which damage the ecology of the area and development.

WWF farm takes a leading role

This is where one of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) South Africa’s 50 Conservation champion farms is taking a leading role. Merwida wine farm has set aside 600 hectares within the wetland as a conservation area and has been working to clear invasive alien plants to allow the indigenous palmiet (Prionium serratum) to thrive. Palmiet is something of a super plant in in Cape river systems as it stabilises river banks, slows floods and provides shelter and food for many species.

Merwida has also supported the planting of indigenous vegetation to create an ecological buffer between the wetland and agricultural lands. The farm’s involvement in wetland conservation has inspired the names for three of their wines after some of the unique plants found here, including a miniature waterblommetjie (Aponogeton angustifolius) which is a popular indigenous food used to make stews.

Work on the Papenkuils wetland is part of a much larger, ongoing initiative to protect the wetland against further degradation by removing alien plants from the Central Breede river and actively restoring these critical areas. This work is taking place in partnership with the local Water Users Association and the Western Cape Department of Agriculture and in collaboration with the landowners, who ultimately are the stewards of these water ways.

In a recently published a study, led by Annabel Marian Horn, Papenkuils is described as an excellent example of a wetland providing natural services by filtering water, preventing flooding, providing income for local waterblommetjie harvesters, grazing for livestock and potential recreational activities. The study also makes explicit recommendations as to how the wetland’s functionality should be restored and improved in the light of its high conservation value.

According to Rudolph Röscher, Western Cape Department of Agriculture, LandCare manager in the Cape Winelands it makes sense to build a business with nature as the foundation.

“Many farming enterprises understand working with nature’s unpredictability and changes. To be resilient these businesses need to reinvest in the eco-services that they depend on – and looking after wetlands is a perfect example of this,” says Röscher.

For more information about the Papenkuils wetland see: https://www.capewinelandsbiosphere.co.za/latest-news/the-untold-story-of-papenkuils-wetland-breede-river-catchment-area

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