I have read recently that the six degrees of separation has now been reduced to three. The world is becoming smaller and so are the wild places that it contains. Conservation and areas under conservation are becoming more and more valuable to the species they offer protection to.
For some time now, on my ever-lengthening list of places to visit, has been ‘crane reserve’. I know that’s what it says because it has gone from my scribbled doctor style handwriting to an excel spread sheet stored on my laptop. And on this last visit to KwaZulu Natal I did some research, found a web site and filled out an online enquiry form to see how I go about visiting the reserve. Considering I did this on a Sunday morning, I was pleasantly surprised to get a phone call within an hour to discuss a potential visit.
The phone call came from Jon Bates, owner of the Fordoun Hotel & Spa, and a donator of the land which is now known as the Bill Barnes Crane and Oribi Nature Reserve. The reserve is linked to the hotel by various footpaths and cycle tracks making it accessible and there to be enjoyed by hotel guests. The story of Fordoun, the family run, luxury, award winning hotel, is worth telling and we hope to tell it, maybe, after our next visit.
Less than twenty-four hours after Jon called me, he was greeting me at his hotel and over a cup of tea was telling me the story of the hotel and the reserve. He told me how Bill Barnes had asked for land to start the project and how on agreeing, Bill then asked for more. Quickly back to three degrees of separation: Bill was great mates, the very best of friends, with my wife’s grandfather, Godfrey Symons. They had many adventures together, exploring the Drakensberg Mountains, birding expeditions and even sailed by container ship with rhinos from South Africa to America as part of conservation efforts to save the species. Bill and his wife Leila also attended our wedding. It is a very small world.
The reserve was created to conserve and offer habitat security to oribi antelope and three species of cranes: blue, crowned and wattled. The grasslands here in the KZN Midlands provide a perfect habitat for all these species plus many more from rare butterflies to reedbuck. Jon is one of those people who is an absolute pleasure to meet. Enthusiasm flows with every sentence and his desire for conservation shines through. Before we headed into the reserve, he was keen to show me his latest project. Within the hotel vegetable plots, a food bloggers dream, were beehives. Two of the hives were fitted with drop down panels so visitors can see into them. Seeing the layers makes understanding of the process of creating honey more easily explained.
Spending time in the 450 hectares of grassland was a privilege and an education. There are really only two sounds here: the wind in the grass and birdsong. Herons, African darter, southern red bishops frequent the dams and their surrounds. Over the veld (uncultivated country) swallows, swifts and whydah birds swoop, glide and feed. The birdlife is prolific. The scenes here, though on a much grander scale, remind me of meadows here in England that as children we played in. Those meadows are now housing estates. There is an abundance of wildflowers with the familiar arum lily growing wild.
There is a scientific approach here as well with state-of-the-art crane breeding and rearing facilities. These, Jon explained, are a plan B. Within the on-site pods located within the reserve cranes can be reared from eggs using glove puppets by dedicated staff members. This has proved successful, and cranes can and have been released into the wild, once mature enough. Plan B, right now, is not needed. But it is there if crane populations need help in the future.
Getting the local community involved is a vital part of conservation, now, and for the future. Local landowners and farmers are encouraged to get involved. Land management and practices can be set in place to encourage and help with crane conservation. School children are also invited to the reserve and are educated in the importance of land conservation and species protection. On a recent school excursion into the reserve the children were asked to see how many plant species they could collect whilst on a short walk. One child collected over one hundred species of native plant material emphasizing the importance of natural veld and grassland.
I cannot thank Jon enough for his time and sharing his passion with me. There are also partners and others involved in the project helping to create a more secure future for oribi, crane and other species within the reserve. If you are in the KZN Midlands make an effort to visit The Bill Barnes Crane and Oribi Nature Reserve. Listen to wind and birdsong and learn about crane conservation.
For more information please visit: https://www.kzncrane.co.za/about-the-bill-barnes-crane-and-oribi-nature-reserve/