This large area is centred on the towns of Volksrust, Wakkerstroom and Memel. The southern boundary extends to Newcastle and Utrecht, the northern boundary to Amersfoort and the western boundary to about 10 km east of Vrede. The area comprises gentle rolling hills on the South African plateau at an altitude of 1 700–1 800 m a.s.l. The hills are regularly interrupted by parts of the Mpumalanga Drakensberg escarpment, small ranges such as Gemsbokberg (2 095 m a.s.l.), Versamelberg (2 139 m a.s.l.) and Balelesberg (2 055 m a.s.l.) and higher peaks around Wakkerstroom such as Ntshele (2 291 m a.s.l.), Ossewakop (2 170 m a.s.l.), Kanonkop (2 112 m a.s.l.) and KwaMandlangampisi (2 266 m a.s.l.).
The area covers several catchments and holds many perennial rivers and wetlands. Five of these wetlands are of international importance and deserve the highest possible conservation attention. Wakkerstroom Vlei (27° 22' S; 30° 07' E), a proposed Ramsar site, lies at the north-western edge of the town of Wakkerstroom. The permanently wet centre of this 700-ha vlei is surrounded by a belt of sedge marsh that is often extensive and itself lies on permanently to seasonally flooded ground. This marsh grades into a narrow zone of sedge meadow and then into a large tract of wet grassland. The vlei contains very little open water; the largest area is in the north-eastern corner, close to the Amersfoort road.
The second wetland is Seekoeivlei Nature Reserve (27° 35' S; 29° 35' E), a Ramsar site situated in the north-eastern Free State near the town of Memel. The vlei consists of a floodplain holding numerous seasonally flooded oxbow lakes, which are drained by the Klip River, a tributary of the Vaal. The wetland area stretches northward for c. 20 km to where the Klip River floodplain narrows, making it the largest floodplain on the Highveld. The vlei holds much open water, often shallow, with extensive fringing vegetation and some relatively small patches of emergent vegetation.
Heyshope Dam (27° 00' S; 30° 30' E) is a large impoundment in the Assegaai River catchment of south-eastern Mpumalanga, located 60 km north-east of Wakkerstroom and about 30 km west of Piet Retief. Built for the transferral of water from the Usutu catchment to the Vaal catchment, it lies at an altitude of 1 300 m a.s.l. and, with a surface area of 12 000 ha, is the sixth largest storage dam in South Africa. The land surrounding the dam is mainly agricultural, used for the production of beef and maize, and two informal settlements, Driefontein and Kangema, adjoin the dam. The grass along the dam's gently sloping shoreline is either severely grazed or grows rank along with weeds.
The privately owned Vanger Natural Heritage Site (27° 52' S; 29°40' E), which lies c. 30 km south-east of Memel, supports the fourth important wetland. About 2 km long, this permanently flooded wetland is fringed by vegetation that was once heavily grazed but is now being allowed to regenerate. In terms of the richness of its palustrine wetland habitats, this site is probably better than most high-altitude wetlands in South Africa and should be regarded as significant in national and global terms. The fifth important wetland is Blood River Vlei (27° 47' S; 30° 35' E), which lies 20 km south-west of Vryheid. Several other small but significant wetlands are scattered throughout the IBA.
The area receives summer rainfall, averaging between 635 and 1 400 mm p.a. The amount depends on the local topography, with most rain falling on the escarpment. The terrestrial vegetation matrix is dominated by some of the finest rolling grasslands remaining in South Africa.
This area holds a significant proportion of the small population of the globally endangered White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi that has been recorded in South Africa. The species is known, or thought, to occur regularly at three wetlands in the IBA in seasons of suitable rainfall. Corn Crake Crex crex also occurs regularly at some of the wetlands. The various wetland systems hold large numbers of Little Bittern Ixobrychus minutus, Baillon's Crake Porzana pusilla, Red-chested Flufftail Sarothrura rufa and African Rail Rallus caerulescens, as well as several breeding populations of African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus, Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum and African Grass Owl Tyto capensis.
Seekoeivlei supports large numbers of a rich diversity of resident and migratory waterbirds. All three of South Africa's crane species, including important numbers of Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculatus, are found in the reserve and surrounding farmlands. Globally significant numbers of Yellow-billed Duck Anas undulata and Spur-winged Goose Plectropterus gambensis also occur at Seekoeivlei. Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris has been recorded here in the past. The area holds several active heronries comprising breeding egrets, African Spoonbill Platalea alba and Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax. Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, Little Egret Egretta garzetta, Yellow-billed Egret E. intermedia, Squacco Heron Ardeola ralloides, Red-billed Teal Anas erythrorhyncha and Hottentot Teal A. hottentota are also usually present in good numbers.
Of the terrestrial birds, the core populations of most of South Africa's threatened and endemic grassland species are centred on the IBA. An estimated 85% of the global population of Rudd's Lark Heteromirafra ruddi is thought to occur within the IBA. Although this lark ranges throughout the site, it is highly localised in open, moderately to heavily grazed level grassland, without forb invasion. It prefers hill tops or plateaus and favours trampled areas.
Botha's Lark Spizocorys fringillaris also occurs in the IBA and is highly localised in grassland on black clay or dolerite soils, where it favours short, dense, natural grassland on plateaus and upper hill slopes, avoiding rocky areas, taller grass in bottomlands, vleis, croplands and planted pastures.
Yellow-breasted Pipit Anthus chloris favours mid-altitude, well-developed and lightly grazed or ungrazed grassland. Substantial breeding colonies of Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus occur in the IBA and large numbers of these ibises forage and roost throughout the area. Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus, Denham's Bustard Neotis denhami, White-bellied Korhaan Eupodotis senegalensis, Short-tailed Pipit Anthus brachyurus and Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus melanopterus are widespread at low densities. Tracking and breeding success studies of Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius in the IBA show that the species breeds in and uses the site extensively. Black-winged Pratincole Glareola nordmanni and White Stork Ciconia ciconia occasionally occur in very large numbers during the austral summer.
African Rock Pipit Anthus crenatus, Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus, Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciata and Sentinel Rock Thrush Monticola explorator are common on exposed outcrops and rocky slopes at higher altitudes. Gurney's Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi is found around protea woodland on the escarpment, and Black Stork Ciconia nigra breeds on steep cliffs. Pongola Bush Nature Reserve and other forest patches hold Crowned Eagle Stephanoaetus coronatus, Chorister Robin-Chat Cossypha dichroa, Forest Canary Crithagra scotops, Bush Blackcap Lioptilus nigricapillus and Orange Ground Thrush Zoothera gurneyi. Occasionally, Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres, Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus, Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni, Black Harrier Circus maurus and Pallid Harrier C. macrourus are found at low densities in the area.
Globally threatened species in the IBA are Southern Bald Ibis, Wattled Crane, Blue Crane, Martial Eagle, Grey Crowned Crane, Denham's Bustard, White-winged Flufftail, Rudd's Lark, Botha's Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Pallid Harrier, Black Harrier, Blue Korhaan Eupodotis caerulescens, Black-winged Pratincole, Maccoa Duck Oxyura maccoa, Bush Blackcap, Chestnut-banded Plover Charadrius pallidus and Secretarybird. Regionally threatened species are African Marsh Harrier, Striped Flufftail Sarothrura affinis, White-bellied Korhaan, African Grass Owl, Short-tailed Pipit, Black Stork, Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus, Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus and Orange Ground Thrush. Restricted-range and biome-restricted species include Swee Waxbill Coccopygia melanotis, Forest Canary, Grey Cuckooshrike Coracina caesia, Buff-streaked Chat, Barratt's Warbler Bradypterus barratti, Yellow-throated Woodland Warbler Phylloscopus ruficapilla, Olive Bush-Shrike Chlorophoneus olivaceus, Kurrichane Thrush Turdus libonyanus and Southern Bald Ibis, which are common. Uncommon species include Knysna Turaco Tauraco corythaix, Rudd's Lark, Botha's Lark, Bush Blackcap, Chorister Robin-Chat, White-starred Robin Pogonocichla stellata, Yellow-breasted Pipit and Gurney's Sugarbird.
Important waterbirds that pass the 1% threshold are Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus, Black-necked Grebe P. nigricollis, Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis, Hadeda Ibis Bostrychia hagedash, White-backed Duck Thalassornis leuconotus, Yellow-billed Duck, African Black Duck Anas sparsa, Cape Shoveler Anas smithii, Southern Pochard Netta erythrophthalma, Maccoa Duck Oxyura maccoa, Red-knobbed Coot Fulica cristata, African Wattled Lapwing Vanellus senegallus, African Snipe Gallinago nigripennis and White-winged Tern Chlidonias leucopterus. Species passing the 0.5% threshold include Whiskered Tern C. hybrida and Spur-winged Goose. Large numbers of Lesser Kestrel occur and roost at several locations in the IBA, such as Newcastle.
North-eastern mountain grassland holds 78 endemic and near-endemic plant species, mostly in the Liliaceae, Iridaceae, Asteraceae, Lamiaceae and Orchidaceae families, on Black Reef quartzites. A further 31 endemics are found on dry dolomites. Most of these endemics are present in this IBA. The rare rock barbel Austroglanis sclateri is reported from the region. Giant girdled lizard Cordylus giganteus occurs on some of the farms and rough-haired golden mole Chrysospalax villosus, serval Felis serval, African striped weasel Poecilogale albinucha and Warren's girdled lizard Cordylus warreni range throughout the region. Laminate vlei rat Otomys laminatus and many-spotted mountain snake Anplorhinus multimaculatus have been recorded in the grassland areas near wetlands. Natal red rock rabbit Pronolagus crassicaudatus occurs on the rocky outcrops and in upland areas. The extremely rare striped harlequin snake Homoroselaps dorsalis and Zulu golden mole Amblysomustris may occur within this large blanket area. The streams in the forested areas of the south-eastern section of the IBA may hold Natal ghost frog Heleophryne natalensis.
This extremely valuable IBA is under considerable threat from a number of quarters. Applications to prospect and mine in the area are received regularly, sometimes on land bordering formally protected areas. If these applications were to be approved, they could have a negative impact on the region as a whole. Some are applicable to water catchment areas, in which case the impact of the mine would be felt downstream and beyond the IBA's borders. Other threats include inappropriate farming practices such as burning too frequently and at the wrong time of year, excessive grazing, the ploughing of new veld and the damming and draining of wetlands.
Three protected environments have been declared in this IBA: Mabola, KwaMandlangampisi and Pongola Bush. The declaration of the Sneeuwberg Protected Environment is currently in progress. Management plans for these protected environments are being drafted or have been finalised. These initiatives greatly improve the conservation status of this area, providing protection against mining and assisting landowners to manage the grassland on their farms for particular species or communities of birds. Other nature reserves in the area are Wakkerstroom Wetland, Pongola Bush, Paardeplaats, Tafelkop and Seekoeivlei. There are also a number of private nature reserves nearby.
This IBA is extremely important from a biodiversity point of view and is considered to be one of the most important sites in the IBA network. However, it faces numerous threats, and initiatives to improve the conservation status of the land and to assist landowners to improve their land management, for example by implementing correct burning and grazing practices, must continue.
EWT's African Crane Conservation Programme drives crane conservation in Wakkerstroom.
Staff members of the BirdLife South Africa Wakkerstroom Tourism and Education Centre are actively involved in environmental education and community conservation projects in Wakkerstroom and across southern Mpumalanga.
The WWF-SA Enkangala Grasslands Project has been operating in Wakkerstroom for the past decade. Established to develop ways to use land more sustainably without causing further damage, the project aims to work with local landowners and other partners to secure and maintain the ecological integrity and cultural heritage of this important area. Innovative mechanisms are being developed to secure the grasslands' biodiversity and the relevant ecosystems' goods and services. The project team is working closely with key stakeholders in the area, including commercial farmers, emerging farmers, land-reform projects and business to get the necessary buy-in and ensure that its activities are supported and approved by key land users.
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