DM168

CONSERVATION

WWF programme seeks to reduce Cape wine farms’ strain on floral kingdom biodiversity

A lake view of Vondeling Farm. Vondeling has taken up conservation efforts that have seen the protection of endangered and critically endangered plants on the farm. (Photo: Vondeling Wines)

As a result of increased agricultural activity brought about by the expansion of the wine industry, the biodiversity of the floral kingdom is under threat in the Cape Winelands. A conservation programme by the WWF is now helping to ensure that wine farms decrease their impact on the environment.

Wine farmers in the Cape Winelands are increasingly turning to alternative farming methods, which are helping to preserve the two global biodiversity hotspots in the region.

About 95% of South Africa’s wines are produced in the Cape Winelands, which is in the Cape Floral Kingdom and includes the Succulent Karoo biome. Unesco has recognised it as one of the world’s six floral kingdoms and it is the smallest and most diverse plant kingdom.

But as the wine industry expands, currently contributing R55-billion to the GDP, increased agricultural productivity has brought about a disturbance to the region, threatening its biodiversity.

The agricultural sector, through increased production, is also notorious for its contribution to the climate crisis, contributing about 17% of global emissions.

Now a conservation programme by the WWF seeks to ensure that wine farms decrease their strain on the environment and produce wine in harmony with nature and its needs.

Bridget Johnsen, conservationist for Vondeling Wines, told DM168 that the climate crisis was increasing the threat to ecosystems that sustain humanity. She said the farm had 35 plants listed on the endangered list, eight of which are critically endangered.

“Increased frequency and intensity of fires makes it vital that the fuel and heat generated in fires involving alien vegetation is kept to a minimum, to minimise impacts of too-frequent or uncontrollable wildfires.

“The forecast of more droughts and increased daily temperatures will seriously impact the wildfire risk and water resources available for agriculture in this already water-constrained region,” Johnsen said.

One of the Rupert wine farms, showing the pristine lands that are partly as a result of rigorous conservation efforts with the help of the WWF. (Photo: Rupert Wines)

The winery, which is on the slopes of Paardeberg mountain, says it mitigates and minimises threats by clearing alien plant species and through erosion management, fire prevention and control, water conservation and biodiversity preservation.

These efforts are also part of an agreement with Cape Nature to preserve more than 250ha of fully conserved land.

Meeting set targets, according to Johnsen, requires staff fire training, recycling, water waste treatment, alternative energy supply and regenerative agricultural practices.

“On our 120ha of vineyards, we have converted all irrigation to drip management, now also informed by soil moisture-guided technology for water application. Using minimal till, we plant alternate row mixed cover crops each winter. All vine prunings are left on the land, to return as much carbon to the soils as possible,” Johnsen said.

Shelly Fuller, WWF South Africa’s programme manager for sustainable fruit and wine projects, told DM168 that the fund’s programme helps to ensure conservationists continue their work through advisory support, setting tangible targets and helping prioritise actions to address the most pressing environmental risks.

Gidi Caetano, estate hospitality and public relations manager at Anthonij Rupert Wines, said conservation efforts had led to a reduction in the cost of resources used. The removal of alien vegetation, – a conservation effort on the farm since 2003 – has led to efficient water use, which benefits indigenous flora and plays a major role in fire prevention.

“The addition of a fynbos corridor allows for the movement of animals through more cultivated areas and has led to conservation areas thriving with natural fauna and flora, as is evident in our log of animal sightings on the estate, including insects like the Cape bluet [as well as] birds, leopard and the Cape fox,” she said.

Caetano told DM168 that the biggest conservation effort in the wine-making process was related to water consumption.

This has seen the farm convert its vineyards to a drip-irrigation system. Added mulch and cover crops to enrich plants and retain soil moisture have also been among efforts to ensure reduced water use, while cellar water points have been fitted with high-pressure valves.

Vondeling vineyards, where the farm has taken on conservation methods such as erosion management, biodiversity preservation and the clearing alien plant species. (Photo: Vondeling Wines)

“The second-biggest component is in the packaging we use, where we are constantly striving for more environmentally friendly materials and products, as is illustrated best by our Protea wine range, designed expressly with upcycling in mind,” she said.

Fuller said some of the farms diversify their wine offering through sustainable initiatives to include nature-based activities such as hiking, eco-lodging, nature drives and bird-watching.

She added that this kind of development brought nature closer to the wine-tasting experience, highlighting the relationship between the winelands and nature.

Some of the farms have taken it a step further and named their wines after endangered species indigenous to the Cape Floral Kingdom, such as the Merwida Papenkuils range and the Vondeling Babiana and Monsonia wines.

Lieza van der Merwe, Merwida Wines winemaker and marketing manager, said the winery’s Papenkuils range included names such as “waterblommetjie”. This was done to pay homage to the Floral Kingdom’s indigenous vegetation and distinctive scenery.

The winemaker added that the Papenkuils conservation area is one of the freshwater jewels of the Western Cape, as it is the largest and best-preserved wetland adjacent to the Breede River system – the wetlands of which are home to Merwida Wines.

The Papenkuils conservation area is recognised by Unesco and the WWF as an irreplaceable ecological cornerstone of Western Cape conservation efforts. Surrounded by agricultural land, housing developments and a dam, the area is also home to several indigenous and threatened plants, seven of which are on the red list.

Before the Conservation Champion programme, there existed the Biodiversity and Wine Initiative (BWI), a partnership between the wine industry and conservation, Fuller said. BWI, which has morphed into the Conservation Champion programme, highlighted the importance of nature to the wine industry.

“One is dependent on the other for survival – nature is the foundation of farming. And these Conservation Champions understand and honour that. Collectively, they own 43,000ha of land, of which 23,000ha are conserved as a pristine part of the Cape Floral Kingdom.

“We hope to achieve an even greater area of this unique natural heritage to be conserved, but also [hope] that consumers become more aware of the impact of their every purchase. We can all make a difference in how we restore the world around us,” the WWF programme manager said.

“Our regenerative agriculture approach and conservation of the incredible biodiversity of this tiny Cape Floral Kingdom (which represents one sixth of the world’s plant species) has provided a wonderful platform for our wines to tell their story,” Johnsen said.

“We only have one planet, and every action we can take to improve its health for future generations is vital,” Johnsen said.

“We believe that the landscape we inherited when we bought these farms is in a better space than it was when we arrived.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Good for Vondeling farm. Those vineyards are thirsty green deserts – no chameleons, no birds, no butterflies. Wine farms are often surrounded blue gum and other alien vegetation: time for change. Where can one buy Vondeling wines in Gauteng?

  • A great place to start would be the former plantation lands that sit higher up the slopes of a great many wine farms.

    1. They should not be replanted with pine / other that suck vast quantities of rainfall and out-compete the local plants. Nothing grows under a pine or bluegum
    2. Where fires ended plantation lives, the department seems to have given up. That land should be handed over to Cape Nature to return it to natural condition.

    • The blue gums are an important food source for bees, which in turn are essential to the pollination of crops, including vines and fruit trees. So simply chopping down all blue gums is not the answer.