Farming at Glenlyon, now the Hantam National Botanical Gardens

By the late Neil MacGregor for the Smiffie and submitted by Capensis member Linda Retief. “I have farmed for the last 48 years on the Bokkeveld escarpment, 400 km NW of Cape Town, 4 km from the little village of Nieuwoudtville, situated East of Van Rhynsdorp and West of Calvinia.

It is on the edge of the Winter Rainfall Region and also on the border of the rich Cape Floral Kingdom. In fact the escarpment is famous for its flora, supporting the richest concentration of geophyte species (bulbs and corms) in the world (almost 40%).

A transect of the western rim of the Bokkeveld escarpment takes you first into true Cape Fynbos with a rainfall of 400 to 500 mm and a ph of 4,5 (KCI) in some places. Next, the most, endangered vegetation type in southern Africa namely the Renosterveld (less than 2% still exists!!) on Dwyka Tillite, with a ph of 5,4 and rainfall down to 350 mm. A dramatic transition takes place into a Dolerite Sill – literally within 20 metres, the ph changes from an acid to an alkaline soil (ph 5,4 to 6,8 plus – 6,5 is neutral on the KCI scale). Rainfall is down to 300 mm. It is a heavy clay loam, which cracks when dry and is impossible when wet – one of the richest botanical areas in the world. Moving further East we move out of the Dolerite Sill into shrub Karoo veld with a rainfall down to 200 mm. The transect has produced four vegetation types, but we have, in fact, only covered 20 km – 500 mm to 200 mm in 20 km with ph’s from 4,5 to 7+.

Neil Mcgregor
source: South African Tourism

I have been very privileged for many years to have been exposed to knowledgeable environmentally conscious people from around the world. This has undoubtedly proved to be a very enriching experience for me and has certainly provided lots of food for thought. Many of these people have been botanically orientated but as a farmer I am constantly in touch with bio-diversity in its entirety, so really my interest and concern lies with the ecosystem as a whole be it birds, plants, spiders, snakes, earthworms, monkey beetles, mammals, etc. You simply cannot divorce the one from the other. All are vital cogs in the big machine and each one has a vital role to play. This fact was brought home to me very powerfully when the NBI launched a three year project, working from our farm, looking at retention of bio-diversity and its effect on sustainable agriculture.

Our challenge on Glenlyon, our property, has been how to integrate this rich bio-diversity into our farming system, for it to become an asset. I wanted the best of both worlds.

We farm with Merino sheep on 6500 ha. When I came to the property in 1958, approximately 1000 ha of Dwyka Tillite and Dolerite was being cropped for wheat production on the wheat/fallow system, in many instances without any nutrient replenishment. I very soon realised that the property was under tremendous pressure and the livestock were suffering as a result. From February to the break of the first winter rains was crisis management all the way! I place a huge question mark over intensive cropping in marginal rainfall zones world wide – I don’t believe it to be sustainable anywhere. In fact, I consider it to be the first step in desertification. I have seen the effects in Australia where it is not viable and my American friends tell me that it is not viable there either. So in 1961 we stopped growing wheat and faced the challenge of rehabilitating 1000 ha of old wheat land to make it productive again. I tried a good number of systems! At the end of the day, I got into Ley farming using primarily Mediterranean annual legumes (medicagos and trifoliums) and some Lucerne (9% of our rainfall occurs in Summer) to try and restore quality vegetative cover again.

We performed many pioneer trials to identify the adapted cultivars and in the next 20 years I was privileged to visit Australia twice on pasture missions, as they are the undoubted leaders in this field.

This system enabled us to follow one of the basic principles of eco-agriculture namely to dramatically improve productivity on the arable land and, in the process, take pressure off marginal land which can degrade rapidly and become useless for farming and bio-diversity.

We also fenced off the very sensitive, special areas, until such time that we understood the management to a point where we could remove the fences again. These mini reserves proved a huge asset – in fact, a real environmental classroom and we learnt a huge amount from them. We grazed them at the right time not to damage anything and very soon realised that 99.9% of the plants were palatable at one or other stage. So by nurturing the entire plant cover we were creating a vast fodder bank, always an asset wherever rangeland farming is practiced. We can, in fact, offer our stock a ten course menu, and don’t think that they are any different to human beings! The improvement in vegetative cover over the entire property was dramatic and suddenly 25 mm of precipitation proved to be far more effective. Earthworm population escalated leading to a project headed by Professor Adriaan Reynecke from the University of Stellenbosch, which proved very instructive.

Glenlyon was originally fenced according to water points. In the mid 1960’s we broke down virtually all the internal fences and re-fenced according to vegetation types. This has facilitated rangeland management dramatically and led to further improved vegetative cover. Trying to manage a paddock with three or four veld types is difficult to say the least.

No artificial Nitrogen fertilizer has been applied for more than 40 years. An occasional oat hay crop has been taken off some of the legume pastures utilizing the build up of biological Nitrogen affixed by the legumes.  The only fertilizer used was phosphate to get the levels back to 25-35 ppm (Citric acid method). This takes the form of top dressing in March.

We haven’t used any soil or plant pesticides or fungicides for more than 40 years. Some interesting aspects have come to light in this regard and I’m just very thankful that we took this decision way back. We have used weedicides occasionally to remove aliens like Hordeum (steekgras) and wild oats (Avena).

For 40 years we have killed nothing on Glenlyon – no animals, birds, porcupines, snakes, reptiles, etc. We don’t even kill the jackals and caracals (Rooikat). We have come to the conclusion that they are far more interested in their natural prey as opposed to our sheep. But if they wake up one morning and the natural prey has been destroyed, and there is no food on the breakfast table, expect trouble. The more you kill the jackal and caracal, the more litters they have and you end up with an explosion. I have seen it happen here. The Americans, for 35 years, waged war on the coyote (just as we have done to our jackal) and killed 12 million and at the end the situation was far, far worse than the original state of affairs. I’ve seen it happen here in my own district. We now have a nucleus group of farmers following the ecologically friendly approach.

Somehow we seem to have achieved an ecological balance although I can’t explain it all – nature is such a brilliantly planned system. Our pastures, natural and artificial, seem to recover and produce feed in an amazingly short space of time – always an asset at the break of the season.

Another huge bonus was the birth of eco-tourism on Glenlyon. More and more people wanted to visit the farm, so in 1990 we started flower tours in the Spring every afternoon. Now, after 16 years, the tours have taken on an ecological flavour, and are patronised by people from, literally, all over the world. It is two-way traffic and I always get off the old 1950’s Bedford bus with lots of food for thought. What a privilege to be able to share the wonders of nature with beautiful people, who more and more are realising that the time has come for us to wake up and preserve this exceptional planet that is our home. Man has tried over the centuries to manipulate God’s incredible creation, and, frankly, he hasn’t had much success.

In conclusion, within ten years of getting the eco-agricultural system on the road, we were running an additional 1000 head of Merinos and shearing 90% more wool with minimum inputs.

On the strength of our experience on Glenlyon, my humble opinion is that the ecologically friendly road is the ONLY way to go in the long term in our quest for sustainability.”

Neil MacGregor, Glenlyon, Nieuwoudtville

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