“Is the tree OK?” yells Charles from the driver’s seat of his VW kombi. We are on our way to plant a large (500 litre root system) cheesewood tree (Pittosporum viridiflorum) and its soil on the trailer, at a home on Plettenberg Bay’s Beachyhead Road overlooking the ocean and Robberg peninsula. I’m in the back with the friendly workers and opposite Charles in front is Nicole, his PA. Nicole must be one of very few who does a large proportion of her secretarial work on wheels, with her meticulously prepared landscaping plans, other paperwork and her trusty tablet on her lap. No sightseeing for her; head down, into the tasks at hand, under Charles’ watchful eye.

At the site, improvements are being made to a large sea-facing house. A building worker with a power roller is neatly levelling the ground, preparing the site into which this elegant tree is to be planted, with other identical trees to come later. The builder, whom I have met before, is a good-humoured and unflappable young man who has overseen the building of many upmarket homes. He is keeping his eye on the bigger picture.

Charles and his team leap into action, first carefully adjusting the depth of the pit into which the tree is to be placed. Charles measures the size and marks the soil; his men respond with their spades, and he then signals the big digger-loader standing by to approach with the tree expertly slung in rigging straps. The tree is lowered in, straightened up and stabilised, leaving it standing secure in all its youthful beauty.

After the fire Plettenberg Bay’s famous Solar Beach

After the fire Plettenberg Bay’s famous Solar Beach

The tree planted, we move further down the bay to Solar Beach where Charles shows me the real purpose of my visit. Dune bush, including that on and around seafront properties, which was burnt in the terrible fire of June this year, had been systematically cut down and neatly put in piles like garden refuse. As a committed naturalist, this deeply disappoints Charles. Municipal workers had been doing exactly the wrong thing. It’s not the end of the world, he says, but this is what Charles had tried to prevent, especially in areas like this. Apart from anything else – for someone committed to the preservation of indigenous environments – this is a gross violation.  All mechanical and/or human intervention changes the status of land from previously undisturbed to disturbed and this ultimately results in a mess.

Human intervention in undisturbed land ultimately results in a mess.

Human intervention in undisturbed land ultimately results in a mess.

Cut material neatly put in piles like garden refuse.

Cut material neatly put in piles like garden refuse.

“There they are,” exclaims Charles, “with their chain saws and  fuel cans, tramping all over the burgeoning  green vegetation that is now coming back into its own, thanks to zero disturbance; walking all over it, cutting down dead sticks and moving them all over the place! It’s a massive misuse of energy and labour, and of job creation, especially at this time. There are so many alien invaded areas to take care of… what were they doing?!”

So where did the order come from and why was it taken without any scientific background? (See the guidelines below by RTC, which had been endorsed by SANBI (indicating that SANBI had not been consulted).

“However, one can imagine the methodology of the guys working on these dunes. They have cut it all down and are now trying to lay the cut material out in rows as if to stop some sort of erosion, but there is little water erosion on dunes and even if there was, the plants are adapted naturally to this movement of sand, so there is no need for human intervention in areas like this or in any other undisturbed areas.”

Uncut dune like this can still protect birdlife.

Uncut dune like this can still protect birdlife.

Charles explains that many of the dune-stabilising plants are vine-like and creep up other bushes, and in this case would have crept up the dead, burnt trees on the dunes. Without these dead trees, which have been cut down, the plants would tend to smother the dune, as opposed to climbing up the dead trees. If they had climbed up the dead sticks they could have created enough height for a micro-climate favouring other more sensitive dune fynbos, and birds, to establish. These potential niches would ultimately play a role in biodiversity.

Says Charles: “Without these stems to climb up, a potentially poorer dune biodiversity could manifest by not allowing other more sensitive plants to come through. One is also likely to find that bird species that nest in the dune fynbos areas, such as Karoo prinias, would nest in foliage of between half a metre and two metres in order to escape predators like mongoose. Without any of this height on the dunes and without any of the vine-like dune-stabilising plants like Rhoicissus cynanchum solanum climbing up the stick, they would have nowhere to nest, and if they did nest in the scrub there would be a good chance that they would be eaten by mongooses. The point is that unnecessary human mechanical intervention must be prevented when dealing with previously undisturbed areas.”

 

Plett Solar Beach Group

After the fire there was a need for guidance, unification and direction in the form of scientific thought and documentation. This led to the formation of Plett Solar Beach Group.

Charles drew up the following guidelines for the group:

  • Old Acacia cylops rarely coppices after fire, so don’t pull them out by the roots unnecessarily. Only cut down A.cyclops plants within urban yards.
  • Do not walk over, drive on or disturb the natural dune areas in any way..
  • Fire has a transforming effect and results in huge release of nutritional energy. Ash does not need to be cleared away. It will blow around but it is not ‘dirty’ and is a natural fertiliser. It should be tolerated until it is washed away by rain or naturally disappears.
  • Post fire activities should be kept to a minimum. It is suggested that very little activity takes place after the fire and a wait-and-see approach is advised.

Root systems, moss and lichens occur under dune vegetation and this dune-stabilising plant material is mostly at a fibrous level of unicellular thickness, usually invisible to the naked eye. These are covered by the ash and any disturbance of the burnt area will result in existing root systems and microsystems being damaged and will lead to wind erosion.

The ash is beneficial to plant growth and will move with a light rain, but will settle in the dune slacks and encourage dune thicket revival. As mentioned, there will be a release of nutritional energy after the fire. Dunes are not eroded by water because they are naturally very porous.

Burnt trees which are still standing will create wind breaks and collect particulate matter out of the air and provide a degree of shade for the understorey microclimate. They also enable vines that form such an integral part of dune vegetation (Rhoicissus spp) to climb and advance the evolution of these microclimates. Aesthetically, the contrast between burnt vegetation and new green growth can be charming.