Previously known as the Bedford-Chatsworth IBA, the Ingula IBA lies c. 20 km east of Harrismith and originally consisted of a wetland located on the private farms Wilge Rivier, Chatsworth and Bedford. The wetland is in the form of a large oxbow with four sedge-dominated arms on the Wilge River. In 2014, the newly named IBA was expanded to include sections of the Little Drakensberg escarpment to the south and further to the south-west towards Murphy's Rust, so that more of the escarpment would be encompassed and the number of habitats increased.
The Ingula IBA is approximately 5 100 ha in extent and ranges between 1 700 and 1 800 m a.s.l. on top of the escarpment. Most of it is bordered by grasslands used for cattle ranching. Falling within the Mesic Highveld Grassland bioregion of the Grassland Biome, the IBA contains two major vegetation types. The predominant type is Eastern Free State Sandy Grassland, listed as an Endangered ecosystem that is poorly protected and has only 55.3% of its total extent intact. The second is the Basotho Montane Shrubland, classified as Vulnerable with 67.9% of its extent remaining. On the NFEPA wetlands map, the natural wetlands are classified as Mesic Highveld Grassland Group 1_Floodplain wetland and Mesic Highveld Grassland Group 1_Unchannelled valley-bottom wetland. To the south and south-west of the IBA, on the Little Drakensberg escarpment, is the Vulnerable ecosystem known as Low Escarpment Mistbelt Forest, which comprises Northern Afrotemperate Forest.
Up to 280 bird species have been recorded at the site. The Ingula IBA hosts four of South Africa’s Critically Endangered species: White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi, Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculatus, Rudd’s Lark Heteromirafra ruddi and Eurasian Bittern Botaurus stellaris.
Taylor (1997) remarked that ’iNgula’ was undoubtedly the best high-altitude palustrine wetland that he had seen in the country in terms of its undisturbed nature, the diversity of its habitats and its setting. He estimated that, with at least 50 birds, it held the highest population of White-winged Flufftails in South Africa. These remarks were made before the dam on the upper part of the wetland was constructed in 2011. Davies (2014) agrees with Taylor that Ingula is an impressive high-altitude wetland (vlei), although he ranks Seekoeivlei, Franklin and Ntsikeni higher in terms of national importance.
Over the past ten years only two White-winged Flufftails have been flushed, at the south-western end of the wetland. Despite the recent failure to locate this species, and the general paucity of sightings over the past decade, consensus remains that the Ingula site is one of importance for the White-winged Flufftail. It is most similar to the Middelpunt wetland, which is considered to be the flufftail’s preferred habitat type in South Africa.
A breeding pair of Martial Eagles Polemaetus bellicosus was discovered in the Ingula Nature Reserve in 2014.
Globally threatened species are White-winged Flufftail (two birds recorded in the past ten years), Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum, Wattled Crane (as many as six individuals and two breeding pairs), Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus, Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus (c. 200 individuals and one breeding pair), Rudd’s Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit Anthus chloris, Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius (three individuals and one breeding pair), Black Harrier Circus maurus, Martial Eagle (breeding), Denham’s Bustard Neotis denhami (as many as six individuals) and Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres.
Regionally threatened birds are White-bellied Korhaan Eupodotis senegalensis, Black Stork Ciconia nigra, African Grass Owl Tyto capensis and African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus. Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciata is the only biome-restricted species.
The sungazer lizard Smaug giganteus occurs in some of the site’s grassland areas. The striped harlequin snake Homoroselaps dorsalis may also occur here.
Fire is a significant hazard in IBAs in the Highveld and montane grasslands of the eastern Free State and is one of the most serious threats to this IBA, even though the fire breaks are well managed within the Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme. Fires are frequent, can occur annually (from mid-winter to October) and are poorly managed in the region. At inappropriate times of the year, such as early spring, they have a negative impact on breeding grassland birds.
Coalbed methane extraction is proposed for the Memel and Vrede region, but does not extend to the Ingula area at this stage. There is an existing Technical Cooperation Permit for the north-eastern section of the Free State, including Harrismith and this IBA, for petroleum (shale gas) exploration, which is likely to be by means of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). There is, therefore, a potential threat of petroleum mining/fracking over the medium term. However, the Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme, which is owned by Eskom, and the declaration of the entire area it occupies (about 12 000 ha and including the IBA) as a nature reserve may result in this IBA being excluded from exploration and/or mining.
Historically, most of the IBA was lightly grazed by cattle so it was in moderate to good condition when described in 1998 (Barnes 1998). However, wildfires were uncontrolled at that stage and the area was burned too frequently. Currently, very little grazing takes place in the IBA, and apparently none in the wetland (Davies 2014).
The Ingula IBA will soon be declared a formally protected nature reserve under NEMPA, with Eskom the management authority. The application has been approved and the proclamation will probably go through in 2015. Once this is completed, the whole IBA will be formally protected. The area also fulfils the criteria for proclamation as a Ramsar site.
Eskom has a formal management plan for the proposed nature reserve and has already embarked on conservation activities. Research has been undertaken on grassland management regimes. Since 2003, Eskom has been conserving the wetlands after years of overgrazing in some areas and the inappropriate burning of the grasslands. Wildfires are also better controlled.
During the construction of the Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme, a team of full-time professional environmentalists monitored all the activities on site, making sure that legal requirements were met. Monitoring continues to ensure that the project is operated in terms of governmental authorisation.
In 2003 the Ingula Partnership was established between Eskom, BirdLife South Africa and the Middelpunt Wetland Trust. Its primary purposes are to ensure the integration of environmental factors into the planning and implementation phases of the Ingula Pumped Storage Scheme; to effectively monitor and manage environmental impacts relevant to the partnership at the site before, during and after construction; and to initiate and monitor appropriate environmental projects.
An artificial Southern Bald Ibis roosting ledge has been built to replace the roosting site that will be flooded by the dam in 2015.
Barnes K (ed.). 1998. The Important Bird Areas of southern Africa. BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg.
Barnes K, Colahan BD, Nuttal RJ, Taylor B. 1998. Important Bird Areas of the Free State. In: Barnes, K (ed.) The Important Bird Areas of southern Africa. Johannesburg: BirdLife South Africa.
Davies GBP. 2014. Mpumalanga and Free State field trip February 2014. Report for BirdLife South Africa, Johannesburg.
Ingula Eskom website. http://www.eskom.co.za/Whatweredoing/NewBuild/IngulaPumpedStorage/Pages/Ingula_Pumped_Storage_Scheme.aspx [accessed June 2014].
Mucina L, Rutherford MC (eds). 2006. The vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. Strelitzia 19. South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria.
NFEPA wetlands map. 2011. Available at www.bgis.sanbi.org
Petroleum exploration and shale gas exploration applications maps. Available at http://www.bctwa.org/Frk-SouthAfrica.html and http://www.greenbusinessguide.co.za/fracking-plans-need-a-unified-voice/ [accessed June 2014].
Snyman H. 2009. A philosophical approach to the distribution and spread of Seriphium plumosum. Grassroots: Newsletter of the Grassland Society of Southern Africa. Vol. 9 No. 2: 29–37.
Southern African Bird Atlas Project. Available at http://sabap2.adu.org.za/
Taylor PB. 1997. The status and conservation of rallids in South Africa: results of a wetland survey in 1995/96 and South African palustrine wetlands: the results of a survey in summer 1995/96. Report Nos. 23 & 24. University of Cape Town: Avian Demography Unit.