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Eco-education in the Wolkberg Wilderness

| October 14, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Johann Ueckermann

Worldwide, one of the responses to the threat of climate change and biodiversity loss is to move towards more environmentally friendly methods of gardening.

In the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA)/World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Eco-Schools programme, many schools are successfully and cheaply growing food through permaculture methods that do not use pesticides or artificial fertilisers. Stanford Lake College (SLC) in Limpopo has taken on a groundbreaking approach with even greater value, with regard to enhancing biodiversity and the environmental management of a school. The concept of a Biosphere Reserve has been scaled to suit a school setting, according to the Eco-Schools’ theme Nature and Biodiversity. The school has already achieved a Bronze award for the theme Resource Use and hopes to achieve a Silver Award in 2011. The Eco-Schools programme is an international accreditation recognising schools and environmental centres that continuously evaluate and reduce their environmental footprints and improve learning opportunities. In Limpopo, the Eco- Schools programme is funded by De Beers, and nationally by Pareto, Nampak and The Green Trust.

A magnificent view

SLC is an independent school situated in the foothills of the Wolkberg Wilderness, and commands a view second to none of lake and mountain. The area is home to numerous species on the Red Data1 list (mainly because their habitat has changed as a result of communities growing timber), including two endangered species of samango monkey (Cercopithecus mitis labiatus) and the Cape parrot (Poicephalus robustus robustus); both frequent visitors to the school. The Cape parrot is also vulnerable to bird and feather disease and capture for the pet trade. Other local species like Breviceps sylvestris (northern forest rain frog), Lygodactylus methuen (Methuen’s dwarf gecko) and Alaena margaritacea (Wolkberg Zulu butterfly) are endemic to Limpopo. They are listed as vulnerable, as they occur on the margin of forest and grassland. Many insects are unnamed, and much research is needed to address this lack of information as there are, for instance, local butterflies that occur in very small and unique areas.

With this wealth of biodiversity, it is therefore not surprising that the traditional vision of a landscaped garden must be adapted to suit the environmental requirements of today. Feagan and Ripmeester (2001) argue that natural landscaping marks a change not only in the land – it also makes people re-examine their values, attitudes and actions. They explain that, by giving up control over nature, individuals could free themselves from the “tyranny of a lawn economy and the wider capitalist system that supports it”.2

Changing land needs

The grounds of SLC have been extensively modified by changing land use over the last century. In 1936, Constant Fauconnier built the lake – or more correctly, dam – to keep trout along the Helpmekaar stream. There is a spring on the site, which was used for a short period to fill bottles with mineral water.

Fauconnier’s wife, Anne, and her sister had the original buildings constructed for tourist accommodation, which became known as the Lakeside Hotel. It was later bought by the Magoebaskloof Coach House Hotel group and renamed Troutwaters Inn. The area where the sports fields are now established were once a thick black wattle plantation, and adjacent thicket areas were planted with pine in the 1940s. The property was purchased by the Letaba Educational Trust as a need for a high school in the area was identified. With the renovations required for a school, earth-moving equipment was used and large quantities of soil were brought in to create two levels. After that, the ploughs came in and grass was planted; the main aim being aesthetics.

Creating an environmental management plan

The Go Green Project was conceived in April 2009 by Maggie Baleta and Mark Harman, and was fully implemented four months later. It was divided into four different management zones, each with a different objective and sustainable environmental management plan:

  • Green Belt Zone – Areas utilised daily by teachers and students between classrooms, hostels, offices and the lake shore. Neatly mown lawn and flowering plants such as azaleas make up this zone, and shady areas with small group seating are available.
  • Sports Zone – The sports fields, tennis courts and swimming pool areas with large group seating are used less frequently, and consist of lawns for playing sport and shade trees. Permanent irrigation is done in this zone, primarily with treated water from a Lilliput system.
  • Staff Residences Zone – All the staff residences and associated gardens.
  • Grassland Zone – All the embankment areas previously under kikuyu grass and azalea bushes – along the back entrance gate and around the sports fields – have been allowed to undergo natural succession. Attractive signage has been arranged to explain the project, and to point out that naturalisation is an important and planned conservation measure being undertaken at SLC. Estate Manager and Natural Science teacher, Wik van der Walt, has plans to plant bulbs and grass aloes endemic to the area to give some colour and show the surprising and diverse floral array that normally one would have to go on a hike to see. Not many people realise that only one in six plants in grassland is actually a grass. Many of these plants are not readily available from nurseries, and will have to be obtained from people in the area that have cultivated these plants.

Enhancing biodiversity and experiential learning The Go Green Project is not only about the rehabilitation of grassland, as this is said to be an impossible task. The project is about enhancing biodiversity and experiential learning. The school is ideally placed on the border of a river and lake that lead to Ebenezer Dam, Polokwane’s main water supply. The Letaba River flows out of this dam into the Lowveld and the Kruger National Park, and is therefore an important biotic corridor, linking the park to the northern Drakensberg Escarpment. In 2008, a hippo made its way up the Magoebaskloof pass and was seen in the lake for a few days. Go Green is about being more environmentally aware and reducing the current environmental footprint through less mowing of the lawn, less watering, fewer chemicals and creating more habitats for wildlife. “It’s about showing that a school can do something for conservation. You don’t need to be a nature reserve to invite biodiversity to the area,” comments SLC teacher Dugald Park.

Learning opportunities and challenges

Outdoor learning opportunities have presented themselves in abundance on the campus. For example, different grass types can now be collected and identified. Learners also participate in removing alien invasive plants, and can observe firsthand how old wattle trees have altered the soil structure and seedbank. Before the removal of alien plants was started, they were prioritised according to their ability to disperse (seed and vegetative reproduction) and invade the surrounding area, and replacement plants were identified. Some alien trees provide welcome shade and will need to be removed in a few years’ time when replacements have grown.

Implementing Go Green has not been plain sailing. Cricket, hockey and rugby players frequently complain of time or balls lost in the long grass. One solution currently being investigated is to install mist nets around the sports field that will simultaneously contain the balls and harvest water from mist. It is also a concern that parents might think the school is tardy, because it is not neatly manicured. However, for the informed and environmentally concerned, the contribution to a greener, more efficient school makes absolute sense – and cents – where different watering regimes are required.

One of the best ways to save water in the garden is to reduce lawn area. Electricity or fuel usage is also reduced, as natural areas don’t need to be cut as frequently as lawn. Another positive spin-off is the sightings and evidence of wildlife since the implementation of the zonation plan. For example, there are two middens of grey duiker on the sports field, and lots of porcupine activity all over the campus. A regular visitor to the school grounds is a slender mongoose. Cape clawless otter, wood owl, long crested eagle and fish eagle are regularly seen on the lake shore.

Johann Ueckermann is Headmaster at Stanford Lake College.


Local historian Professor Louis Changuion for sharing his knowledge.


1. Red Data lists determine the conservation status of species.

2. Feagan, R. and Ripmeester, M. (2001) Reading Private Green Space: Competing Geographic Identities at the Level of the Lawn. Philosophy and Geography, 4 (1), pp. 79–95.

Category: Featured Articles, School Travel, Spring 2011

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