Hairy heath protection

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Alouise Lynch from Bionerds discusses conserving a single population of critically endangered hairy heath on top of a mountain in the Western Cape…

Five facts

740: The approximate number of erica species in South Africa.

46: The hairy heath is one of 46 critically endangered erica species.

1: There is only one population of this species in the wild.

Threats: Agricultural development, too frequent fires and alien vegetation.

Private landowners: The biggest conservationists of this sub-population.

It is difficult to explain the feeling of standing in the middle of the last stronghold of a critically endangered plant species. Filled with awe and trepidation, at the same time you have the privilege of seeing a species that occurs nowhere else on earth.

Should anything happen to this population, it will be lost forever. There are roughly 400 critically endangered plant species in the Western Cape. The Ericaceae family is one of the biggest plant families in the Cape Floristic Region, with 46 erica species listed as critically endangered.

The hairy heath. Photo: Bionerds

The hairy heath (Erica xeranthemifolia) only occurs on Shaw’s Mountain in the Kleinrivier range between Caledon and Hermanus in the Western Cape. We found them on a rocky quartz plateau during the height of their flowering season.

This is quite a peculiar erica. It is covered in dense hairs, a phenomenon called tomentose, which serves as a natural protection against the effect of environmental conditions.

The total area of occupancy and extent of occurrence for this species is roughly 3km². It grows in an ecotone (a transition area between two ecosystems) of Overberg Sandstone Fynbos and Elim Ferricrete Fynbos, the prior being listed as a threatened ecosystem due to the high level of natural plant rarity and endemism.

As if occurring in low numbers in a threatened ecosystem is not enough of a challenge for this species, they also face a constant decline in sub-populations due to the loss of habitat to forestry development and
crop cultivation.

Alien invasive vegetation puts further pressure on this beautiful heath, slowly taking over and outcompeting the natural vegetation.

The encroachment of alien invasive vegetation brings the risk of frequent and intense wildfires that could severely impact on the various ecosystems along this mountain range.

Flowers of the hairy heath. Photo: Bionerds.

Frequent fires mean that plants will not have enough time to germinate, regrow and set seed – leading to a further decline in the hairy heath population. Over the long term, this can lead to regional or total extinction of a species.

But it is not all bad news. The biggest sub-population of this species occurs on private property, and the landowners are conservation-minded and nature-loving. They have taken custodianship of their natural environment seriously, clearing invasive alien vegetation and putting management protocols in place that will hopefully secure this sub-population and its habitat
in perpetuity.

Written by Alouise Lynch, Bionerds: www.bionerds.co.za

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