Most game ranches were once farms with internal fences. The decision to change from livestock to game may have brought great relief, but with that decision went much, if not all internal fencing.
The change will also have openned new horisons. Such was the case for Dr. Quintis Richter. The farm Evelyn with incorporation of part of the farm Kranenberg is now Evelyn Game Ranch. The ranch, 20 kilometres west of Musina offers eco-tourist experience for hunters and non hunters, luxury accommodation in a bushveld setting, dominated by majestic baobabs. The vast expanse is puntuated by sheer sided rock koppies, home to klipspringers, also a feature of the ranch.
While the removal of the fences themselves is a welcome change, the loss of a camp system is often mourned. At first glance one would suppose this to be the case on Evelyn Game Ranch. What is the loss really?
Usually internal fences were spanned for the convenience of management of the property and the livestock on it. Yes, fencing was also a management tool to facilitate grazing rotation, providing scope for resting veld and sparing camps for the winter.However there features of the vegetation, which are themselves management tools that can make up for this loss.
Due to the geographic features of the area which have been influencing the vegetation over countless centuries, the ranch is in the Savanna biome – dry subdivision, mopani veld.
Variations on Evelyn within the big picture have resulted in plant communities each with important distinguishing features. However, plant communities were not a consideration when the original camp fences were erected. This can be clearly seen on old maps, where fences are shown. The straight fence lines cut across the irregular shapes of the plant commmunities.
Mopane encroachment in community 3 forces other species out – some clearing and reclamation grass planting should be considered.
Plant communities on a property complement one another. There are differences which are recognised by grazing animals, but often go unnoticed by humans. Differences between plant communities can assist with veld management. Grazing animals self regulate. They themselves apply rotational grazing, deal with moribund veld and spare veld for contingencies.
It is up to management to find out what the plant communities on a property are. Composition, cover, size and location are all important features. Such knowledge makes sustainable stocking rates easier to calculate. It also helps with the balance of game species on the property.
Quintis Richter recently had recently had his veld assessed. On Evelyn Game Ranch there are three distinct plant communities,which have been mapped. Each community is characterised by the proportions of growth forms, trees, shrubs, dwarf shrubs grasses and forbs.
Within each community strong and weak competitors are identified. The strong competitors are those which are more numerous than would be expected within a particular community, while weak competitors are fewer than expected. These exceptions are often problems in themselves, but they are also important indicators of problems in their particular community as a whole.
Community 1 – 317 hectares
Cover at 70% is the lowest on the ranch. The proportion of trees and shrubs, the woody growth forms, to grasses is satisfactory for the topography.
In spite of the lowest ratio of tree species to grasses and the lowest cover on the ranch, the veld in community 1 is heavily grazed and attractive to game.
Community 2 – 177 hectares
Cover at 88% is much better than in community 1 but the proportion of woody species to grasses is equally satisfactory.
While vegetation cover in community 2 was good, it was unattractive for grazing.
Strong tree competitor is Knob thorn Acacia nigricens which is valuable as browse. The same applies to silver raisin Grewia bicolor and red bush willow Combretum apiculatum in the shrub growth form. Combretum apiculatum is a potential encroacher.
Strong grass competitor broad-leafed panicum Panicum deustum is palatable and nutritious and poses no threat. It dominates under trees and shrubs. The diversity of grasses is much better than in community 1
Community – 3 799 hectares
Cover at 99.8% is good and the best on Evelyn Game Ranch. The proportion of woody growth forms to grasses is too high.
Mopane Colophospermum mopane is a strong competitor. There are parts of the community 3, where this species is so dominant that other species are forced out. There is therefore an argument for some clearing of this species in community 3, while only keeping a watch on it in the other communities.
The diversity of grasses is fair. Broad leaf panicum Panicum deustum is a strong competitor. As the tree and shrub cover is so high in this community, 14.4% cover by Panicum deustum is not surprising. Its palatability and nutritive value are good.
In conclusion it was found that vegetation cover is good in communities 2 and 3. Community I had the worst cover but it was also observed to be attractive to game and was grazed heavily.
The proportions of woody growth forms to grasses is good in communities 1 and 2. The only community which requires intervention is community 3 and there the focus can be safely placed on mopane Colophospermum mopane.
The assesment was done in a particularly wet season. The high proportion of pioneer and sub-climax grasses on the ranch, would not occur in drought seasons, especially successive dry seasons. This will have to be taken into account in planning. It will be very important to monitor regularly so that there are actual assessments of grazing in low rainfall seasons.
In community 1, which had the lowest ratio of tree species to grasses, the cover was the lowest on the ranch. The general appearance of the veld in this community was not what one would expect in a wet season. In spite of this, the grazing in the other two communities was being neglected. Quintis Richter had observed this kind of behaviour by the game in previous years. He had also experienced the benefit of the fodder bank that accumulates in other parts of the ranch, when in dry years the accumulated grass is fully utilised.
Often this kind of preference is misinterpreted. Management then try to entice animals to change their grazing pattern by moving drinking points and licks, usually to no avail.
Study of community composition and cover provides a basis for estimation of standing biomass of grasses. From this determination on Evelyn, Quintis Richter and his management team can make calculations concerning stocking rate with much more confidence than in the past.
Should there ever be an indication of overstocking, knowledge of the communities and biomass estimations will be of great value in showing how much overstocking there is compared with what grazing there is and how much there is likely to be available in below average rainfall seasons.
Decisions to reduce stock are always difficult to make, but far easier when one has a base of valuable data regarding the veld to work from.
There are times when game’s preferences are a nuissance. For example their passion for young grass planted into the veld. Previous land use may have resulted in the veld being compromised by species loss, especially palatable perennial grasses. Soil erosion is often a consequence of that kind of species loss.
One of the remedies is planting grass into the veld with a view to re-introduce species and to slow down the the flow of excess surface water to prevent gullies. These plantings are highly attractive to game and some means to control them has to be found. In savanna veld the solution is offered by thorn trees. Brush packing with thorn branches is often the difference between success and failure.
Heavy brush packing is essential for establishment of reclamation grasses and to allow them to produce seed for dispersal into surrounding veld.
On Evelyn Game Ranch several different method of brush packing have been tried. Only thick packing directly over seeded areas has worked and has worked very well. It is important that the grasses grow where they are planted, but just as important that they flower and go to seed. Seed from plants in the placements is dispersed over the surrounding veld thereby enhancing the value of the investment. For this reason brush packing must be 500mm to 1metre high and at least I metre wide.
There are times when internal fences are required on game ranches. For example to make camps for very valuable game species. Knowledge of the charcteristics of the plant communities will assist in selecting appropriate vegetation. Knowledge of the location of the communities will help in placing the fences so that they do not illogically cut across plant communities thereby making management of the camps unnecessarily difficult.
Farming without internal fences has so many advantages. It is almost essential at times on game ranches. However, knowledge of the veld and the plant communities of which it is composed is a managemment tool in unfenced areas that must not be neglected.