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The Tierberg legacy

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The patch of land that was developed to become the Tierberg Karoo Research Centre

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If walls could speak, what would these have to say about the flashes of inspiration generated here by scientists during the past 27 years?

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Sue Milton conducted, coordinated, inspired and communicated Karoo science with great dedication and vision

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A typical heuweltjie

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Thanks to Richard Dean, knowledge of the Karoo has made great strides

By Joh Henschel, Manager, SAEON Arid Lands Node

What does SAEON have in common with the Karoo?

An appreciation of large dimensions of time and space. SAEON’s appreciation is predated by visionary scientists concerned with sustainable land use practices and veld management.

Karoo Biome project

The National Programme for Ecosystem Research (NPER), run by the CSIR, developed interdisciplinary, collaborative and long-term research in each South African biome. The Karoo Biome project initiated in 1986 was the last of these programmes. Its initial rationale included recognition by John P H Acocks way back that maintenance of the Karoo’s viable natural seed banks was critical, but an understanding of seed bank dynamics was lacking.

The Karoo Biome project was managed through the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology and the Botany Department of the University of Cape Town and masterminded by scientists Roy Siegfried, Eugene Moll, Richard Cowling and Phil Hockey, and a number of postgraduates who accompanied the brainstorming and resulting action from the start.

Karoo study site

After quite some searching for a suitable Karoo study site - to be as homogeneous as possible and typical Karoo - they found a suitable spot between the Swartberg range and one of its foothills, located on the farm Sand River Portion 2 (formerly Tygerberg, now known as Tierberg) near Prince Albert. The owner of the farm, Prudence Hobson, leased one square kilometre (100 ha) to the CSIR via the NPER for research facilities to be established on the site. Both Mrs Hobson and a neighbouring farmer, Wynand Niehaus, also allowed research on their respective adjacent rangelands.

The NPER granted funding for the lease of the land and upgrading of the Tierberg farmhouse to be used as accommodation. In 1987, the Tierberg Karoo Research Centre (TKRC) was born. Scientists, environmental managers and the farming community had high hopes for what the TKRC would reveal, and lively interactions among and between these groups was characteristic of the programme.

Pioneering scientists

From the outset, postgraduates Sue Milton and Richard Dean did far more than conducting research for their thesis projects on herbivory and vegetation change in Karoo shrublands (Sue), and harvester ants as well as nomadic and endemic birds in the Karoo (Richard). Not only did they install facilities, huts and fences, they also tirelessly laid down groundwork for long-term monitoring and facilitated research at TKRC by a host of other researchers. Further funding followed from the National Research Foundation (NRF) and several universities, indicative of the interest in and success of the programme.

The list of scientists who sharpened their academic teeth at TKRC reads like a “who’s who” of South African desert ecologists, including, notably, Graham Kerley, Karen Esler and Colleen Seymour. William Bond, who is now the Chief Scientist of SAEON, made many visits to the site and stimulated debate on the ages of shrubs and the origins of heuweltjies1.

Though the list of knowledge gaps is still daunting, Tierberg is by far the best researched patch of Karoo. It is on this legacy that SAEON builds, now that it manages both the data of TKRC as well as its facilities.

Others who made major contributions to understanding of the dynamics of plant and animal communities now work as far afield as Mexico (Dick Yeaton), USA (Thomas Leuteritz), Germany (Thorsten Wiegand) and Australia (William Stock). It should also not be forgotten that, throughout, there have been extensive exchanges with Karoo farmers, near and far, as well as agricultural managers and researchers and developers of mining and other industries across arid South Africa.

Sharing the wealth of knowledge

Over the years, the TKRC made strong strides in developing an understanding of the structure, functioning, processes and dynamics of the Karoo. The wealth of knowledge was published in at least 104 peer-reviewed scientific papers, 15 book chapters and no less than 10 theses. Four significant books on the Karoo saw the light of day, authored or edited by Milton and Dean.

Significantly, in 2009 SAEON became the custodian of a wealth of data from the TKRC, now stored on the SAEON data portal and available for further analysis and comparison with new data.

Land owners, managers, developers, policy-makers and the public, especially school children, have also benefited from this understanding of the Karoo. Numerous popular magazine and newspaper articles, many reports and presentations, as well as at least two of the above-mentioned books are directed at them. This has not only helped to popularise fascination for the Karoo, but also facilitates improving its environmental sustainability.

Knowledge gaps

If scientists have learnt one thing about the Karoo, it is how little they actually know. Not only is 27 years of research a rather short time to understand the long-term processes inherent in arid regions - though it is a start not be scoffed at - there are many features and processes about which there is still little known.

For instance, we still have scant knowledge or appreciation of the importance of micro-hydrological processes in the soil, decomposition and nutrient cycling, and the roles of features as tiny as micro-organisms or as large as heuweltjies. These, and many other attributes could be as important, or more so, than those we already understand. Though the list of knowledge gaps is still daunting, Tierberg is by far the best researched patch of Karoo.

It is on this legacy that SAEON builds, now that it manages both the data of TKRC as well as its facilities. The continuation of TKRC would not have been possible without the long-standing generosity by the subsequent farm owner, Jannie Kitshoff, who allowed rent-free occupation of the TKRC site long after the original lease had expired, and in 2014 donated the site and a right of way to SAEON for this purpose. This land will be registered as Tierberg-LTER in the name of the NRF.

Environmental indicators

SAEON continues to monitor environmental indicators that were previously developed so as to elucidate long-term processes or events. It also sets out to develop further environmental indicators with the help of visiting scientists from other institutions, all the time keeping a good eye on the needs for the application of this knowledge by land users and policy-makers.

Not to forget that Tierberg-LTER and other nearby farms are now ideal outdoor classrooms where learners can become inspired to become scientists, giants of the future. As it is, SAEON can already see further by standing on the shoulders of giants. Just think of what it will be like in future.

Reference

For context of the NPER see: Huntley B.J. (1994). Ten years of cooperative ecological research in South Africa. S. Afr. J. Sci. 83, 72–79.

1 The formation of heuweltjies is a slow process where mounds form above termite nests, grow larger and then contract when they have passed a certain stage, probably when they are no longer occupied by the small harvester termite Microhodotermes viator. When the termite colony dies, the heuweltjies gradually fade and disappear.

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