The Paardeberg, some four thousand hectares in size, is a granite mountain range which is host to a unique biodiversity of flora and fauna. Botanically the Paardeberg is part of the smallest and richest plant kingdom on the planet, known as the Cape Floristic Region. Sadly, it is increasingly threatened, with close on two hundred of the thousand plant species on the Paardeberg, being endangered. The flora of the mountain is predominantly fynbos, a high concentration of species which grows in course nutrient poor acidic soils. proteas, pincushions, leeucodendrons, ericas, and restio grasses are typical, and just a short walk through the bush presents one with an extraordinary kaleidoscope of flowering plants. For the most part these plants are finely tuned to fire, which naturally occurs at between five and twenty-five year intervals, giving rise to its rejuvenation.
Alongside the flora, the wild land of the farm is home to numerous species of mammals, birds and reptiles. We quite frequently see various buck – reebok, duiker and grysbok – and even the non-indigenous fallow deer, which shed their enormous antler racks yearly. We have also seen Cape fox, spotted genets and caracal, and the motion cameras on the Paardeberg show aardvark (ant-eaters), serval and honey badgers, as well as leopard. None of these have we have seen ourselves.
On the other hand, a constant presence, even in the farmhouse garden, are porcupine. They eat our bulbs and break our irrigation pipes, and have lodged their quills in the flesh of numerous of our dogs, who like to chase them come evening time. One magical moonlit night a mom and her baby rattled their way across my path as I drove into the farm, but that is the only time I have seen porcupine young.
Also frequently seen on the farm are tortoises and various splendid species of lizard. Some of the tortoises have been huge – at least eighty years old, and these have been leopard, angulate and geometric tortoises. One year at least ten tortoises came down from the mountain to wander around the farmstead. We think it must have been during mating season. Sadly a lot of tortoises died in the fire of two thousand and eleven.
Another encounter with tortoises was this time, ironically, with city tortoises. A woman living in Rondebosch Cape Town phoned me and said that she had been rescuing tortoises for years and had fifty in her garden. She asked whether we would rehome some of these. We were quite happy to oblige, and as a trial run she duly brought us two large leopard tortoises in boxes, which we released into the mountain. One of these was never again seen, but the other one quickly trundled back down the mountain road. We picked him up and took him even further up the mountain, but he just came down again, and we concluded that he didn’t fancy this as home. The woman drove out and took him back to his Rondebosch garden. This was, in the end, just as well, as when Cape Nature heard of our rehoming attempt, they were very upset, stating that introducing new species of any animal could pollute the genetic pool and introduce disease into an indigenous population. The thought had never crossed our minds.
Of all the wild animals we have encountered, the most vociferous are baboons. A number of troupes roam the Paardeberg and they have a particular penchant for our grapes at harvest time. They are very clever and have thwarted all our attempts at keeping them away from our vines. We tried parking an old tractor in the vineyard with die pop (the doll), a dressed up mannequin, perched on it, and they knocked die pop off the tractor and steadily ate around her prone body. We then got a volunteer to sleep out in a hut next to the pinotage, but even though he got up very early in the morning to bang large pot lids, the baboons had beaten him to it and discarded a present of two bunches of grapes on the hut doorstep.
Our baboons are completely wild so they keep away from humans, except very occasionally one will come down to the farmstead. One such visit was from a large male we called Boris. Boris must have been cast out from the troupe, and he sat rather forlornly in our loquat tree eating fruit noisily and spitting out pips. He then loped along to our oak trees, quickly climbed quite high, and then sat staring down at us from a branch. After phoning Tali, our baboon expert friend, we did as she suggested and fired our shotgun into the air to frighten him off. This, together with a group of us jumping up and down shouting loudly, did the trick, and he eventually moseyed away and was never again seen.
Quite apart from the bigger species of animals on the farm, are countless small creatures, amongst them meerkatte (meercats), muishonde (mongooses), dassies, frogs, fruit bats, little shrews, mole rats and field mice. Not to mention countless butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles, moths and other bugs, locusts and spiders.
But most prolific in the nature reserve – on the farm as a whole – are dozens and dozens of bird species and they have been steadily increasing in number over the years we have been here. The bird population is so wonderful that we have had numerous birders and birding clubs here over the years. One group from the University of Cape Town ran quite a few birding workshops tagging birds they caught in gossamer nets they set up between bushes.
Amongst birds we have seen on the farm are egrets, sparrows, larks, bee eaters, doves, shrikes, sunbirds, sugarbirds, harriers, blue crane, mousebirds, woodpeckers, bokmakieries, drongos, fiscals, crows, lapwings, chats, bulbuls, robins, weavers, bishops, white-eyes, egyptian geese, pigeons, spurfowl, nightjars, swifts, thick-knees, buzzards, falcons, hawks, eagles and owls.
With regard to owls, we have had quite a lot of contact with Cape eagle owls, Cape spotted owls and barn owls who have for many years nested in the oak trees dotted around the farmstead. It has been miraculous to watch the fluffy nestlings greedily eat from mom’s beak, and with some trepidation, we have seen the babies fall from the trees and be unable to fly back up. Supposedly mom feeds them on the ground, but we haven’t seen this, and for some years spent hours picking them up and taking them up ladders back to their nests. This was for fear that our cats, Osama Ben Kitty and Suzie Cream Cheese, would get at them.
My close encounter with a barn owl was particularly special. I had just gone up into the farmhouse attic, when in front of me, not three feet away, stood a large adult Barn owl. We both stood absolutely still regarding each other intently for at least thirty magical seconds. Then this beautiful bird raised its giant wings, turned and flew out of the attic window.
Of all the birds, we are perhaps most proud of the Verreaux (black) eagles that soar above the farm, and we have even named one of our cottages after them. For some years a fellow conservationist on the Paardeberg sited and photographed a nest, but since then, the whereabouts of their nests have remained a mystery.
An account of our wild encounters would not be complete without tales of our resident snakes, but these encounters have been so frequent that we speak of them, as follows, in a separate segment.
Apart from poaching, which is unfortunately present on our wild land, growth of alien species especially Black Wattle and Port Jackson encroaches at an alarming rate on indigenous species. We, together with friends, clear aliens where we can, and have also had help from Working for Water and Working on Fire. Sadly, we are not winning the battle.