Threat to Symmonds Grasslands and Stream

This report has been compiled by the Friends of Symmonds Stream: Liz Taylor,  Pia Sanchez, Ross and Pam Haynes and Submitted to Dr M. Ngubane the uMngeni Local Municipal Manager.

Late in the week of 20-24 May 2013 members of the Friends of Symmonds Stream group noted that red subsoil was being dumped on the field on the corner of Symmonds Stream and Gush Avenue.  In a call to the Parks and Gardens Manager it was learned that it was a playing field for Thembelihle School. Mrs Joyce Pope indicated that Councillor Janis Holmes had already noticed and reported it.

Subsequently, on Tuesday 28 May during a guided monthly Symmonds Stream walk it was noticed by Mrs Pam Haynes that extensive mounds of topsoil had been pushed up on the north-eastern side of the playing field area directly above the stream, this since Saturday 25 May. This was in addition to the topsoil already collected at the bottom end of the playing field area during the previous week.  View of part of the stockpiled topsoil on the N-E side of the playing field.(28 May 2013)

pam  soil heap

The extent and the seriousness of what was happening and the apparent lack of oversight and management then became apparent to those who had up until then believed that this was a relatively low-impact activity on an already compromised corner of the area and that the benefits to the learners would offset the negative aspects of what was happening.

Site map of the area and the proposed playing field for Thembelihle School on Erf 9118, Howick.

arial photo

Pia Sanchez (founding member of Friends of Symmonds Stream) wrote after visiting the site and Thembelihle School on Tuesday 28 May:

For the past 5 years the Friends of Symmonds Stream have been raising awareness about the importance of rehabilitating Symmonds Lane Stream and its urban catchment. Volunteers and the Howick DUCT River Care Team have over the past 3 years done extensive clearing and treating of invasive alien plants along the stream from Mare Street, near the Forgotten Falls, Gush Avenue to Andrew Street to Buchanan Street to Drew Avenue. The stream’s source is below Buchanan Street and it flows approximately 1,6 km through residential Howick before dropping into the uMngeni Valley over the Forgotten Falls.

Bordering the stream and one of its wetlands (on the corner of Gush Avenue and Symmonds Lane) one of the last remaining stands of Mistbelt Grassland in Howick has survived. This land is designated as Public Open Space (POS).

Proposals to the uMngeni Local Municipality started in May 2009 for this area to be registered as a Conservancy, at the time the intention was to link it with Beacon Hill conservation activities.  A gathering to launch the Howick Symmonds Park concept on 18 April 2009 attracted 150 people and was opened by the District’s Municipal Manager, Mr Sbu Khuzwayo.  A public meeting was held on 28 January 2010 to discuss the proposed Conservancy and was attended by 29 people representing 17 organisations.  Subsequently, a number meetings were held with the uMngeni Municipality to discuss the issue, the last on 3 February 2012 (minutes are available for all these meetings).

Thembelihle School (under the auspices of the Methodist Church) on Main Street backs onto this Symmonds Lane grassland (Erf 9118) and the principal, Mrs Carol Boniwell, reported on 28 May that the uMngeni Municipality had granted permission to the school to utilize an area 117m x 50m as a playing field. Work on the playing field began in earnest around 23 May 2013, with loads of subsoil being brought in from the Eridene Reservoir site to level the area. A flag is in evidence marking the boundary for the site.

Upon inspection on 28 May 2013 we were able to see that an extensive area of approximately 2000 sq. metres, outside this 50m boundary, has been torn open and bulldozed into large piles of topsoil, uprooting all the indigenous plant species in the process. This was done presumably to collect more topsoil for covering the introduced red clay from the Eridene reservoir. Dumping sand onto this mist belt grassland will have a detrimental impact, which will take many decades to recover (see recommendations below).

With the recent opening of a trail along Symmonds Stream up to Beacon Hill (for which only last week an agreement between the uMngeni Municipality and the KZN Biodiversity Programme was signed to initiate proclamation as a Protected Environment) we had hoped to protect the valuable grassland habitat. This would also have provided an ideal outdoor classroom for the children of Thembelihle School to be able to identify the grassland species that used to occur in the Howick area. During May the following articles appeared in the Village Talk: May, 1 Adventures around the town – Beacon Hill (Midlands Meander Association Education Project); May 10, Discovering a hidden stream – Symmonds Stream (Bridget Ringdal, WESSA Eco-Schools); May 24, Far sighted Municipality protects biodiversity – Beacon Hill and Fort Nottingham (Midlands Conservancy Forum).

It is with concern that we now witness that the uMngeni Municipality has once again given insufficient consideration to public participation and has failed to comply with government’s constitutional and statutory obligations. Had the process of public participation been allowed to follow its course, it is likely that the intention could have been clarified and an Environmental Management Plan put in place that could have contributed to avoiding the irreparable damage that has now occurred outside the demarcated area of the sports field.

View of the area that was peeled to stockpile topsoil for spreading on the playing field.  Note the brown layer of topsoil remaining in situ in the centre of the photograph which more-or-less indicates the boundary of the allocated playing field area. (28 May 2013)

playing field earthworks

 Liz Taylor, Chairperson, Duzi Umgeni Conservation Trust (DUCT), Howick

It is with great concern and consternation that DUCT-Howick has heard from a few sources that a sports field for Thembelihle School is being built on the Public Open Space next to Gush Avenue above Symmonds Stream. There has been no public participation regarding this use of a public space.

This particular piece of grassland is a remnant of the original Ngongoni Mistbelt Grassland that once covered the whole of the Howick area. Most of it has never been ploughed or disturbed in any way (except for mowing the grass and the occasional burn). It has representatives of the same plant species that occur on Beacon Hill and is the only remaining sizable piece of grassland of its type in the whole of Howick.

This piece of land belongs to the community of Howick and is our natural heritage. This land should be fiercely protected from any development and infringement by groups of people who do not understand its national and community worth. People in generations to come will be able to walk on this area and see what grassland species used to occur very widely in the Howick area. With land-use change and climate change we have lost 98% of our original Mistbelt Grasslands (i.e. only 2% remains).

We owe it to our people to stand up and protect this tiny remaining piece of our heritage.

On Tuesday morning, 28 May when Mrs Pam Haynes saw the damage being done she phoned a number of people including Mr Marc Hattingh, Acting Environmental Officer at uMngeni Local Municipality and Ms Xoli Madiba, Compliance section Dept of Environmental Affairs (KZNDEA), who both said they would visit the site. Mrs Haynes also reported what she contacted  DUCT, Midlands Conservancies Forum and South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildlife (CREW).

Thereafter, Kech and Pia Sanchez visited the site with Pam and Ross Haynes. They found Mrs Carol Boniwell, Principal of Thembelihle School, on the site after having been phoned by Mr Steve Simpson, Planning Manager for uMngeni Local Municipality. A discussion ensued and she said the documentation could be seen in her office.

The excavated area can be clearly seen below the 50m marker indicated in this photo to the left.

ross excavated area

Ross Haynes (Chairperson, Friends of Beacon Hill and Treasurer, Midlands Conservancies Forum) wrote this after visiting the site (28May):

The excavated area for the topsoil is more than 30 metres above the stream at the closest point, however it is at the top of a steep incline, which is a risk factor.

The grassland of the top section of the proposed playing field part was already compromised and had been previously partially levelled.  The real tragedy is that the topsoil referred to above has been scraped (from outside the demarcated area) and piled on top of an undamaged part of the grassland that is not part of the allocated playing field area.

The other matter of deep concern is that the uMngeni Municipality sees fit to use public open space (POS) as it wishes, without any consultation process with Interested and Affected Parties (I&APs).

When I visited Mr Marc Hattingh in his office in the late afternoon 28 May when the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) strike had stopped, he indicated that Thembelihle School has been instructed to hire an environmental management consultant.  I pointed out that immediate action is imperative to ensure that further damage to the area beyond the demarcated area does not occur.  He indicated that he would phone the school Principal immediately to convey the message.


1. Public meeting: It is proposed that a public meeting of all Interested and Affected parties (I&APs) be called without delay in order to list the recommendations for the rehabilitation process of the impacted grassland to be set into motion as soon as possible.

These are some of the important issues that need to be addressed:

a. Rehabilitation of the disturbed grassland: The original topsoil removed from outside the demarcated area which is stockpiled at the lower side of the playing field (above the Symmonds Stream – Fig 2) should be replaced as soon as possible onto the area from where it was removed to enable the process of recovery to start.  When returning the topsoil, absolute care must be taken not to drop into or below the existing vegetation level, under the stockpile area, otherwise further irreparable damage will occur.

b. Additional topsoil: If more topsoil is required to cover the clayey substrate (that has been brought in for levelling the playing field) than is available from the initial stockpile of topsoil at the “far” end of the field, it should be brought in from elsewhere (so that topsoil from this site is kept for rehabilitation of this site).  Any introduced topsoil is likely to contain invasive alien seed and should, therefore, not be spread anywhere outside of the school’s demarcated area.  When collecting the initial stockpile of topsoil (from the end of the field) care must also be taken not to drop into or below the existing vegetation level under the stockpile area, in order to avoid further damage in this area.

Further investigations are being conducted and will be reported on in this blog in due course.

1 thought on “Threat to Symmonds Grasslands and Stream

  1. Meriel mitchell

    Such a heart wrenching account of what has happened to this
    Special piece of land. Thank you for fighting your case as an act of farsightedness for future generations. I would love to hear the outcome.



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