Located 17 km north-west of Winterton, Spioenkop Nature Reserve has undulating topography with numerous hills and valleys. Altitude ranges from 1 070 m a.s.l. on the dam surface to 1 455 m a.s.l. at the top of Spioenkop Hill. Waterbodies include the Tugela River and Spioenkop Dam, a large man-made impoundment. The dam sides are mostly steep and rocky; there are no mudflats. The site encompasses more than 3 000 ha of grassland. The climate is warm-temperate: winter frosts are light, and snow is rare. Rainfall averages 814 mm p.a., falling mainly in summer (October–March). The grassland is vulnerable to invasion by trees such as exotic Acacia species. Other habitat types include woodland thicket and, along the banks of the Tugela River, riverine vegetation that is characterised by tall trees.
Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres is attracted to the vulture feeding area in the reserve. Other species that occasionally use the restaurant include Lappet-faced Vulture Torgos tracheliotus and Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus. The surrounding grassland areas support several breeding species of large terrestrial birds, including Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus, Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum, Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius, Denham's Bustard Neotis denhami and White-bellied Korhaan Eupodotis senegalensis. Other grassland species include Black Harrier Circus maurus, Striped Flufftail Sarothrura affinis, Black-rumped Buttonquail Turnix nanus, Short-tailed Pipit Anthus brachyurus, Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus melanopterus and African Grass Owl Tyto capensis.
White-backed Night Heron Gorsachius leuconotus and African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus are found in the reserve's riverine and wetland habitats, and a nesting pair of Goliath Herons Ardea goliath also occur here.
Cliff-nesting species include Jackal Buzzard Buteo rufofuscus and Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus, as well as Black Stork Ciconia nigra, which forages in association with streams and vleis. Wherever a rocky outcrop erupts, Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciata and Sentinel Rock Thrush Monticola explorator abound. Gurney's Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi is a winter visitor. Spioenkop acts as a refuge for a number of high-altitude Drakensberg birds in particularly cold weather.
Globally threatened species are Cape Vulture (up to 100 have been recorded at the vulture feeding area) and Grey Crowned Crane. Regionally threatened species include African Marsh Harrier, Black-rumped Buttonquail, White-bellied Korhaan, African Grass Owl and Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus. Fairly common biome-restricted species are Kurrichane Thrush Turdus libonyanus, Buff-streaked Chat, White-throated Robin-Chat Cossypha humeralis and White-bellied Sunbird Cinnyris talatala.
The threatened white rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum has been re-introduced. Other Red Data mammals present are aardwolf Proteles cristatus, African wild cat Felis lybica and aardvark Orycteropus afer. Springhare Pedetes capensis is here at the extremity of its range, and Spioenkop is the only KwaZulu-Natal reserve in which it occurs. Striped harlequin snake Homoroselaps dorsalis has been recorded. Two trees are of interest: Premna mooiensis is a fairly localised endemic; and Canthium gilfillani is an uncommon highveld species at its southernmost limit.
Spioenkop Nature Reserve faces few direct threats. Poisonings pose the greatest risk to Cape Vulture, incidents of which may occur anywhere in the area. To combat mammalian predators such as black-backed jackal Canis mesomelas, caracal Caracal caracal and domestic dogs, small-stock farmers place poisons in animal carcasses. Hundreds of vultures can be killed in a single poisoning incident. Vultures are occasionally considered to be sheep killers, a view based on misunderstanding. Awareness programmes should disprove the vulture's reputation as a harmful or nuisance animal, and the importance of its ecological role could be harnessed. Another threat faced by vultures is a depleted food supply. This results in the loss of vital nutrients in the diet and causes bone abnormalities, especially in areas such as this where most of the large ungulates have gone and hyaenas, which used to crush bones and make fragments available to vultures, are locally extinct. The establishment of more vulture feeding areas like the one at Spioenkop could solve this problem.
The encroachment of the grassland by Acacia species threatens many of the grassland-dependent species in the reserve.
Proclaimed in 1975 by the then Natal Parks Board, Spioenkop Nature Reserve is administered and managed by EKZNW.
Brown CJ. 1992a. An investigation into the decline of the Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus in southern Africa. Biological Conservation 57: 315–337.
Brown CJ. 1992b. Distribution and status of the Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus in southern Africa. Ostrich 63: 1–9.
Brown CJ, Piper SE. 1988. Status of Cape Vultures in the Natal Drakensberg and their cliff site selection. Ostrich 59: 126–136.
Piper SE. 1994. Mathematical demography of the Cape Vulture. PhD thesis, University of Cape Town, South Africa.