Tag Archives: Winterskloof

Rats, Poisons, Owls

Tammy Caine of the Raptor Rescue Rehabilitation Centre has been overwhelmed with offers of safe homes for owls and other small raptors, following our blog post Owls, Out of the Woods. “Thank you. I am going to put together a database of all the people and their properties. I am spoilt for options now. This was a fantastic idea, and I could not have done it without your help. It is so much appreciated!”

r owl pussy cat feet

Obviously, the story captured the imagination of many Midlanders. Not all however, and Judy Bell, Chair of the Winterskloof Conservancy compiled the following information for members and residents.

One of our Conservancy members was distraught recently to see a resident of our Valley walk out of the Spar with an armful of Rattex.  The use of this poison has consequences, which we all need to understand, so we can make informed decisions for the sustainability of the wildlife in our Valley.

A food chain is a system where a small creature is the food for a larger one which, in turn, is the food for an even larger animal. Owls and raptors are perched on top of their food chains and we are privileged to have many in the Winterskloof Valley.  One of our Valley families has even become an owl rehabilitator, looking after injured birds until they are able to fend for themselves and be released.  It will be devastating if the use of poisons (for snails, rats, etc) kills off these beautiful owls that have been given a second chance in life.  We cherish their nocturnal calls as they do their rodent control work for us, free of charge!

owl chicks.

Many people don’t realise that when an owl or other predator eats a poisoned rodent, that animal gets poisoned too. These poisons are killing the very animals, like the Barn Owl, that naturally control rodents. For owls to survive, there needs to be enough food (rats and mice) for them to eat.  This means that there will be these essential creatures in the food chain.  We do need to keep them out of our houses, but shockingly, over 86% of all tested wildlife patients show evidence of exposure to rat poisons!  These animals are eating poisoned rodents and carrying varying loads of toxic poison in their systems and those of their chicks, as a result.

Rat poisons kill by making whatever animal eats them bleed to death internally – slowly and painfully over a period of days. While the poisoned rats or mice are still alive, they (and their deadly load of poison) can be caught more easily and consumed by other predators including owls, cats and dogs. Rodents are the basic food source for a number of different predators all the way up the food chain, including owls, buzzards, eagles, genets and caracal (rooikat) in our area. It is a terrifying prospect; to kill many animals while targeting only one!  As top or apex predators, the presence or absence of raptors (including owls) from an area can tell us how healthy the environment is. If raptors are rare or absent it means that the balance of nature has been disturbed.


South Africa has 12 owl species varying in size from the tiny Pearl-spotted Owlet to the imposing Verreaux’s Eagle-Owl (previously called a Spotted Eagle-Owl). Owls are found in many habitats, from bushveld to grasslands, on cliff-faces, along river-banks and in our cities.  There are fewer owls and other raptors in the Valley each year, not from the lack of habitat or food, but from the widespread and improper use of poison bait in misguided attempts to control rats.  Rat poison is having dangerous and detrimental effects on the wildlife in our area. We need to find better ways to live well with wildlife.

Please STOP using rat poisons as they are doing more harm than good.  So what CAN we do to keep control these creatures that cause damage when they choose to live in our houses instead of our gardens?

Ben Hoffman, from the Raptor Rescue Centre advocates the use of the Rat Zapper, which is shown in the photo provided by Sharon Gilbert who has bought one.  It provides a lethal shock when a rat or mouse enters the trap.  There are no poisons used and thus will not affect other creatures that may eat the dead mouse or rat.

rat zapper

What a pleasure to have a environmentally responsible alternative to controlling the rodents that may be wreaking havoc in our ceilings!

For more details on raptors, visit the African Bird of Prey Sanctuary website, where they give tips on creating Owl-friendly environments.  We look forward to hearing from you about your tips to avoid using harmful poisons for controlling pests.



Winterskloof Gets Wet

Autumn is in the air.  We gathered on a beautiful, sunny, ‘freshly washed’ Sunday morning recently to enjoy the first of the Winterskloof Conservancy Water Workshop series.


Judy Bell writes:

Penny Rees of DUCT (Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust) and Mngeni River Source to Sea Walk fame began the workshop at Cowan House with a discussion about the need to look after our catchments in KwaZulu-Natal.

Our Valley is the watershed for the Dorpspruit, which feeds into the Msunduzi and then into the uMngeni River.  As you can see in the diagram below, the sources of about 12 streams are located right here in our Valley (shaded area) and our properties.  Hence the importance of us all becoming river custodians.

dorpsruit tributaries

Conservancies and communities along the uMgeni River and various catchments are forming partnerships with DUCT to assist in monitoring and protecting the rivers and their catchments in an effort to release more water of good quality into the system.  These workshops held in the Midlands Conservancies are educating communities to monitor rivers in a practical and easy way, so that we can all take action to improve the situation.  A grant from the N3 Toll Concession (N3TC) to the Midlands Conservancies Forum has enabled Penny Rees to run these workshops for the 14 Conservancies that make up the Forum.

The more people who learn to do these easy river health assessments, the more monitoring results will be available for the streams flowing through our properties and neighbourhood.  If we continue to record the results, we will be able to trend the quality with time.


Penny explained some fast-flowing facts about our water:

  • The uMngeni River arises in the uMngeni Vlei (Nottingham Road area) and flows to Midmar Dam (our drinking water supply) through intensively farmed areas – mainly dairy and pigs, with pollution from fertilizers, effluents and manure slurries, discharging into it.  It is also affected by raw sewage from blocked sewers, especially from the Mthinzima Stream, a tributary arising from the hills above Mpophomeni and flowing into Midmar.  Below the Dam, the river becomes heavily polluted in places as it flows through Howick, affected by contaminated stormwater, litter, raw and treated sewage.  The effluent from the Howick Wastewater Treatment Works flows over the edge of the krantz before the Howick Falls, into the Umgeni Nature Reserve.
  • The river is infested in many places with invasive alien plants such as bramble, bugweed, black wattle (Acacia mearnisii).  This is an invasive native to Australia, which grows unchecked in thickets, with no undergrowth to protect the bare soil, which then erodes easily.  The river previously meandered through grasslands, but with shading by the invasive wattle trees has changed the temperature and pH of the water, which encourages the growth of unhealthy micro-organisms and other plant life, affecting the river’s health.
  • Soil erosion, litter from illegal dumping and storm water drains, treated and untreated effluent all contribute to the deterioration in the health of the river as it makes its way to the sea.
  • Over one thousand million litres of water are abstracted from the uMngeni daily for domestic, agricultural and industrial consumption.  This is not sufficient to meet the increasing demand, which has led to the development of the Spring Grove Dam and Mearns Weir projects in the Midlands, transferring water from the Mooi to the uMngeni River.
  • Water is pumped at great cost from one catchment to another (e.g. Thukela-Vaal) to augment supplies.
  • Only appropriate developments should be allowed near sensitive wetlands and grasslands, which are often viewed as ‘idle land’, when in fact they are performing a life-saving role as water factories and cleaning agents.
  • eThekwini Municipality is currently spending around R1 million each month to clean uMngeni Water to drinking water quality standards and is now working with Msunduzi and uMgungungdlovu Municipalities to invest in the ecological or natural infrastructure that will help increase flows of good quality water into our dams – the wetlands, grasslands, forests in the upper catchments.  This is why the Midlands, with its ‘water factories’, is so important.
  • The River Walks that DUCT undertakes has shown that rivers can ‘heal’ themselves if there is sufficient space between the damaged areas (pollution and invasive alien plant infestations).   In the Cumberland Nature Reserve, this was shown to be a 10 km stretch without pollution, development or alien plant infestations.
  • Monitoring and knowledge of the health of rivers has become a priority, which is why the miniSASS river health assessments (Stream Assessment Scoring System) were introduced, to help citizens join the programme and learn about the water quality in their communities.

Water Quality Monitoring – No High-Tech Equipment needed!

The beauty of this testing system lies in its simplicity.  Anyone can learn how to collect a miniSASS sample on a river or stream, and determine the water quality and health of water resource.  It involves catching and identifying the number and types of macro-invertebrates (small animals) or “nunus” which live in the water.  These are barometers (indicators) of the general river health and water quality. Equipment consists of enthusiastic samplers of all ages using various plastic containers (yoghurt or margarine tubs) with mosquito gauze on top, children’s beach fishing nets and pot plant drip trays for the catch, as well as the miniSASS score card and invertebrate identification booklet.

Sampling the stream 16Mar2014

The group moved down to the Doreen Clark Nature Reserve, just below St Michael’s Road to do a miniSASS on the stream flowing through the reserve.  This stream flows throughout the year through the mist-belt forest, but picks up the run-off from the road and houses upstream, so is not expected to be in “pristine” state.  Under Penny’s guidance, the group quickly collected specimens from the stream amidst lots of ‘oohs, ahhs’ and muddied feet.


The “catch” was compared with the photographs and placed into groups.  The scores allocated to the different types of organisms was tallied and then divided by the number of groups to which they belonged.  Some organisms carried a higher score, as they are only present in “clean” water.  The stream scored 6.8 which is a rating of fair to good on the miniSASS scale (see Scoring Box below).

winterskloof mini sass score

We hope to involve the schools in the area to develop custodianship of the rivers and streams, to help with regular monitoring of the Valley’s streams’ health and water quality.  The website sass.orasecom.org has further details on testing, identification of the nunus, scoring and registration of the stream as well as a map, geographic coordinates and locations of the river or stream and how to submit test results which should be carried out with a minimum of 6 week intervals to allow the sample site to recover.


Penny said she thoroughly enjoyed herself and that it was great to see how the younger members got so involved!

SASS – Ecological Category (Condition) Interpretation Score

  • Unmodified (NATURAL)                                                >7.9
  • Largely natural / few modifications (GOOD)       6.8 – 7.9
  • Moderately modified (FAIR condition)                  6.1- 6.8
  • Largely modified (POOR condition)                            5.1 – 6.1
  • Seriously / critically modified (VERY POOR condition)    <5.1

Thanks to all those who joined us for the Workshop, to Cowan House for hosting us, Penny Rees for enlightening us, the Midlands Conservancies Forum and N3TC for funding the Workshop and for those who joined us.  Winterskloof will have another water workshop later in the year in Spring, so watch out for this.  Balgowan Conservancy will host one on 27 April in the Mpofana River.

For more information, check out the DUCT uMngeni River Walk miniSASS and miniSASS websites.


Winterskloof Forest Walk

On Sunday 3 November, members of The Winterskloof Conservancy, along with neighbours and friends walked through an area of indigenous forest, which is systematically being cleared of alien invasive plants, most notably Ginger.


The intention was to show the changes occuring within the area that has been cleared, compared to that which is still invaded by Ginger. Picture below illustrates this – cleared on the left, infestation on the right.


Ginger clearing around the base of a tree.


The stream (which was barely noticeable before the ginger was removed) is flowing strongly.

IMG_6144The re-emergence of indigenous plants is very encouraging – Plectranthus sp, Clivia miniata, Streptocarpus and Sellaginella kraussii amongst others.


Andrew James, of The Indigenous Nursery at the Botanical Gardens, kindly shared his time and extensive knowledge of indigenous plants with us and led us through the forest, sharing information throughout the walk.


Clive Bromilow, expert on Alien plant species, was also with us, so we got the lowdown on the “baddies” too.

The old railway line runs through the property, with two reservoirs for the refilling of water for the steam trains still in existence. IMG_6140

Dressed stone walls, beautified by tiny ferns and verdant moss abound – a fascinating blend of history and natural beauty.


What a sharing of information – we had an incredible morning!


We were entranced by the appearance of the elusive Narina Trogan, resident in the forest. Scarlet Crested Loeries made themselves conspicuous in a magnificent, giant Forest Cabbage Tree, as did the delicate, beautifully coloured Paradise Flycatcher, flitting through the understory. The bird life is prolific, but fairly difficult to spot as the growth is rampant. Time and patience are required, but definitely rewarded.


The walk was followed by a demonstration by James on propagation , a simple, cost effective way of replanting a cleared area. Clive had his great book available and signed copies for us! A bring and share lunch was enjoyed by a happy group who stayed on for the afternoon, laughter and strengthening friendships the order of the day!

The walk was well attended and very inspiring, we will certainly host more such walks and encourage continued clearing of the aliens in Winterskloof.  Read about the efforts of the Green Bobbies, a Winterskloof Conservancy initiative.