A rare sighting of a Cape fox family, an out-of-the-ordinary set of Nguni calf twins, and the healthy development of 11 bontebok lambs are all encouraging reminders of nature’s bounty during these uncertain times.
With more than a fifth of the global population in lockdown due to the coronavirus, South Africans are amongst those drawing inspiration from nature. People are sharing photographs of sunsets, taking YouTube virtual game drives, and joining online “wellness wanders” through botanic gardens.
Vergelegen wine estate in Somerset West, which has 1900 hectares promulgated as a private nature reserve with the same protected status as the Kruger National Park, is accordingly sharing heart-warming news of young indigenous animals that are flourishing on the farm.
Cape fox (Vulpes chama) have stable populations all over Southern Africa, but it is rare to spot them as they tend to be very shy, especially in urban areas. Vergelegen staff have been delighted to encounter an entire family – two adults and three pups ‒ right on their doorstep.
Vergelegen environment manager Eben Olderwagen says staff had previously sighted individual animals, but it was only when the resident horticulturist, Richard Arm, spotted the entire group together ‒ they have a burrow near his home on the estate ‒ that it was realised that they form a family unit.
“They are delightful, with large floppy ears, and proof of how local species are thriving since hundreds of hectares of alien vegetation were cleared from the farm from 2004 to 2018,” says Olderwagen.
Vergelegen completed South Africa’s largest privately funded alien vegetation clearing project 18 months ago, clearing a vast area of 2200 hectares of densely packed pine, acacia and eucalyptus.
The 3 000 hectare estate is now home to burgeoning fynbos. Rare and endangered plants and grasslands have regrown, and numerous birds and mammals have returned to the estate. Species such as Cape leopard, caracal, honey badger, grey rhebok and spotted genet are regularly reported.
The birth of 11 bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus pygargus) in recent months has brought the number of this rare breed on the estate to over 50.
There are three breeding herds: One is located in the aptly named Welpiesvlei (cub) area, another near the wine cellar, and one near the management office.
Vergelegen first welcomed 13 bontebok to the estate about 11 years ago. The estate’s late conservationist, Gerald Wright, was on the advisory board of the Helderberg Nature Reserve, where grazing was insufficient.
The buck were treated for ecto-parasites and given copper and zinc supplements, and have since flourished on the estate’s lush indigenous and pasture vegetation.
Rare Nguni twins
Vergelegen registered its indigenous Nguni cattle stud about ten years ago, and currently is home to some 340 Nguni cattle, recognisable by their richly patterned hides.
“This hardy breed normally bears only one calf, and on the rare occasion that they have twins, they generally select the stronger calf and reject the second.
This was indeed the case when we welcomed our first ever set of twins,” says Olderwagen. “We named the rejected calf Nina, and hand-reared her with a bottle until we could introduce her to one of the smaller herds on the estate. She is now thriving.”
No less than 146 Nguni cows are pregnant and due to give birth between June and September this year.
Vergelegen CEO Wayne Coetzer says: “During this worrying time, our priority has naturally been to ensure the safety of our staff while we have attended to essential farming and horticultural duties. It has given us a real psychological boost, however, to hear reports of how nature continues to flourish.
“While we cannot open our gates to visitors at present, we are delighted to share this positive news. Connecting in some way with nature seems more important now than ever.”
Since Vergelegen was acquired by Anglo American in 1987, there has been an extensive programme to restore the 320-year-old estate and establish it as a showcase of South African heritage, culture, wine and biodiversity. Last year, it was judged the best wine estate on the continent, and named a Western Cape provincial heritage site.
“We look forward to the time when we may again welcome visitors to this beautiful estate, so that they can walk in nature and soak up the peace and tranquillity of 18 exquisite gardens,” says Coetzer.