The Murphy’s Rust IBA is located c. 20 km east of Harrismith and is approximately 665 ha in size. Lying in the Grassland Biome at an altitude of 1 640 m a.s.l., it is surrounded by agro-industry farming such as croplands, old and fallow agricultural fields that are no longer arable, and some cattle ranching. An important wetland is located in rolling high-altitude grassland on the property. It is dominated at its upper and lower ends by beds of Phragmites, but its middle section comprises excellent habitat, having been hardly damaged or penetrated by cattle. This section can flood to a depth of 30–50 cm, with vegetation averaging 1–1.5 m in height. At the upper end of the wetland, the Phragmites is bordered by sedges and grasses on shallowly flooded ground.
This IBA was originally created to protect the White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi, as the species was recorded in the wetland. The area was not considered a priority for conservation before this discovery because the extent of natural habitat for other species is limited. Barnes (1998) reported that much of the IBA was overgrazed at that time and sections of the wetland were trampled by cattle.
At least 94 bird species have been recorded for Murphy’s Rust IBA, two-thirds of which have been regularly reported.
Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres, Jackal Buzzard Buteo rufofuscus, Pied Starling Lamprotornis bicolor, Drakensberg Prinia Prinia hypoxantha and Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus have been recorded in the IBA.
Globally threatened species are White-winged Flufftail, Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum, Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus and Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus.
The Murphy’s Rust IBA lies in a region of commercial farmland, with a large proportion of the natural grassland being used for grazing sheep and cattle and much of the surrounding area being cultivated. The greatest threats to the site are overgrazing and burning. Fire is a significant hazard in IBAs in high-altitude and montane grasslands and is one of the most serious threats to this IBA. Fires are frequent, can occur annually and are poorly managed in the region. The area is apparently much more heavily grazed in years of normal rainfall.
The farm is privately owned and receives no official protection. Until the discovery of the Critically Endangered White-winged Flufftail, the site was not rated as being significant by local conservationists because it is heavily grazed. Working for Wetlands was rehabilitating the wetland area, but this work seems to have ended. The lack of a management plan is cause for concern. Overgrazing should be investigated and ways should be sought to limit or manage the grazing in order to improve the wetland habitats and to avoid disturbance and trampling during the summer breeding season. Murphy's Rust should be regarded as a very important wetland, especially in view of it being a site for White-winged Flufftail. Additionally, it supports locally rare vegetation and habitat types. Every effort should be made to lessen the grazing pressure in the IBA; to investigate its birds in greater detail; and to involve its owners in conservation-related management. It deserves a high rating on a regional, national and global scale.
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