Our Burning Planet

CARING FOR THE LAND

A conservation champion’s journey from teacher to baker to beermaker to ‘ecoboer’

A conservation champion’s journey from teacher to baker to beermaker to ‘ecoboer’
‘There used to be a million springbok here, as well as elephants,’ says Adrian Robinson, chairman of the Rooiberg-Breede River Conservancy. ‘Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could make more space for wildlife again?’ he asks. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Adrian Robertson, now chair of the Rooiberg Breede River Conservancy, admits that there have been several excursions and a few missteps along the way.

It had been a long day at the oven when Adrian Robinson experienced another Eureka moment.

Unwinding in the company of his elder brother, Phillip, the former geography teacher-turned-baker realised that he was thoroughly fed up with waking up daily at 2.30am to heat up ovens or knead mounds of flour.

“Let’s go farming!”, he declared, as one does, while seated in a hot tub after work and quaffing red wine.

That impulsive farming adventure began just over 20 years ago, when the brothers Robinson bought a 1,800-hectare piece of land near the town of Robertson, about 140km west of Cape Town.

conservation langeberg

The Langeberg mountains cast their shadows over the Breede River Valley, where at least 35 farmers are helping to conserve parts of the unique Succulent Karoo landscape that is rich in semi-desert plant life and part of a global biodiversity hotspot. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Adrian, now chair of the Rooiberg Breede River Conservancy, admits that there have been several excursions and a few missteps along the way.

Initially focused on grapes, they later expanded into nectarines, plums, peaches, almonds and olives. In between, they also tapped some of the local mountain water to establish a new craft beer range under the banner of the Saggy Stone Brewing Company.

Adrian, currently recovering from a major motorbike smash that has left his left leg and pelvis festooned with surgical pins, has always dreamed of establishing a game reserve. But installing a 22km-long game fence turned out to be a mammoth task. Hoping to economise on fencing costs, he opted to do the job in-house, so it was more than 2½ years before the job was completed.

Eventually, with the fences up, he sourced and transported small herds of kudu, springbok, eland, wildebeest and plains zebra to the farm, a task that brought its own challenges.

conservation robinson

After stints as a baker and geography teacher, Adrian Robinson has turned his hand to farming, beer-making and eco-tourism. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Ideally, says Robinson, he would like to expand the small reserve and would be happy to drop some of his boundary fences if he could reach a suitable agreement with several neighbours.

“There used to be a million springbok here, as well as elephants. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we could make more space for wildlife again, especially in a water-scarce region where the indigenous wildlife and vegetation are adapted to such dry conditions?”

Battling the aliens

More recently, however, the focus for Adrian and 34 fellow members of the conservancy has been on removing the alien vegetation that has infested the tributaries of the Breede River.

With support from CapeNature and the WWF-South Africa conservation group, large stands of aliens (mainly blue gums) have been cleared from the riverbanks on his farm.

“We saw the results immediately. The river has been running for three months since the blue gums came down and the water table is not dropping as fast as it used to,” says Robinson.

And when he gets the bit between his teeth, Robinson doesn’t muck around, so he also decided to wage war against alien prickly pears on his farm.

conservation mdoko

Conservation manager Sandile Mdoko admires the rich variety of succulents, dwarf trees and renosterveld shrubs in the Vrolijkheid Nature Reserve in the Little Karoo. Known as Robertson Karoo vegetation, there are few grasses in this arid area, which has extremely high summer temperatures. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

Armed with a large sword he fashioned himself at the farm forge, he slashed it around with gusto.

“Big mistake!” he recalls, as several months later there were even more prickly pears sprouting from the fragments he had lopped down.

In a further conservation drive, he is trying to cut down on the volume of synthetic pesticides on the farm to improve the soil health and biodiversity of the land. Several environmental awareness courses have been held for his staff to encourage water conservation and discourage practices such as killing every snake on sight.

Other conservancy members, such as the Botha family of Voerspood Boerdery, have also been closely involved in clearing alien vegetation from the nearby Noree River and then replanting streambanks with riverine species grown at a new indigenous nursery.

Gareth Boothway, the WWF land care stewardship coordinator who has been supporting the conservation work of Robinson and other farmers in the Rooiberg-Breede River area, says land care initiatives in this area depend ultimately on voluntary support from landowners.

Recognising that further agricultural expansion on scarce arable land poses a threat to the unique indigenous vegetation and biodiversity of the valley, farmers are encouraged to avoid further degradation of high-priority sections of the Succulent Karoo Biome.

According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute, there are more than 6,500 plant species within the Succulent Karoo, but less than 10% of this globally-unique biome is protected within nature reserves.

conservation robinson

After stints as a baker and geography teacher, Adrian Robinson has turned his hand to farming, beer-making and eco-tourism. (Photo: Tony Carnie)

This is why it is so critical to encourage private landowners to conserve these specially adapted plants, especially the critically rare species that fall outside formal conservation areas.

“We use CapeNature’s spatial biodiversity plans to identify which portions of really high-priority land should be excluded from development, as well as those areas with less biodiversity that can be used for agricultural expansion,” says Boothway.

Farmers are also encouraged to sign land and water stewardship agreements with either CapeNature or WWF.

“Some landowners are reluctant to sign long-term agreements with the state, but are more amenable to shorter-term agreements which are less restrictive.”

While several agreements have been signed over recent years, Boothway acknowledges that the uptake has been slow among landowners.

“Building relationships and trust is a long-term game and we are fortunate to have local conservation champions like Adrian who are passionate about protecting the landscape, but who also understand the economics and daily challenges of farming.” DM

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