Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Wonder of Wetlands

By Gillian McLaren

The second of February every year is the day to focus on wetlands and what they mean for our environment. On a field trip to Dullstroom I asked conservationists from the Endangered Wildlife Trust to explain how wetlands purify and protect our precious water.
In celebration of World Wetlands Day, a team from EWT was showing us around the Lakenvlei area. Stepping gingerly from grass tussock to tussock, we tried valiantly to keep our shoes dry. Only the experienced EWT field workers, who know just how WET the Lakenvlei wetlands actually are, wore sensible high Wellingtons. They strode boldly through the damp grassland, smiling at our tentative steps, knowing that we were to face much deeper water as our exploration of the fascinating area progressed.

The beauty of the wetlands immediately drew me as I saw the variety of grass species undulating in the wind, like the skirts of swaying maidens. A great diversity of exquisite flowers decorated the fields. I inhaled deeply to savour the sweetness and freshness of the air.

From the perimeter of the wetland area into the peat area, we took soil samples using an auger (a type of hollow drill), to see the increase in both water and organic content.  Peat takes thousands of years to develop and once it has been destroyed, it can never be rehabilitated. I was amazed to hear that the peat in Lakenvlei is 11 300 years old. Imagine that it has been a stable wetland for all those centuries. Applications have been made to mine in the area. If they succeed, those thousands of years of stability, beauty and dynamic equilibrium will be decimated.

Listening to the field workers made me realise afresh the crucial importance of wetlands to the quality and amount of precious water in South Africa. Like a sponge, wetlands absorb water and then release it during dry periods. They reduce the impact of floods and high water  levels. It is interesting to note that the wetlands take up CO2 and store it as carbon, so greenhouse gasses are reduced. When the wetlands are destroyed, carbon is released and so increases global warming.

We had our binoculars poised in case wattled crane, grey crowned crane or blue crane made their appearance. Each of these much loved species is  dependent on wetlands for their survival. Destroy the wetlands and we destroy them. A pair of grey crowned cranes was spotted! There was much excitement and joy to see their pin-cushion heads bobbing up and down as they foraged.

Birdlife in the area is prolific. I was fascinated by the ungainly flight pattern of the male long-tailed paradise-whydah. Amazing that he can fly at all, trailing that banner. Many other creatures make their homes in the wetlands. I saw a small, pretty frog, a tiny crab, many dragonflies, some orb spiders and I was bitten by ants when I tried to rest on some rocky ground.

Some of the threats to our wetlands include the drains which farmers dig to dry the areas in order to farm them. This drying releases CO2 as well as all the minerals which were stored. Dams have to be carefully placed or they can negatively impact wetlands. While grazing and burning are important to clear away dead matter, they must be done with consideration, care and restraint.

The field workers at EWT impressed me with their passion, their dedication and their zeal for conserving our valuable wetlands. What can I do? Each of us can be aware of wetlands near us, however small they may be and report any dumping of waste or building material which occurs there. We should build or buy homes which are above the flood-line, as below flood-lines are actually wetlands. “Each of us can make a difference,” says Kerryn Morrison, a longstanding member of EWT. “The cumulative impact of small contributions ensures we will have wetlands for future generations.”

I waded into the clear, clean water right up to my thighs. It was great fun and one of those sublime moments where I revelled in the stillness, the coolness of the water and the sight of an African snipe in the grey, overcast sky. My hiking boots were, of course, totally submerged and I smiled at how quickly we had turned from hesitant city slickers into aspirant field workers, for a day. 

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Gillian Mclaren Travel and Science Writer