South African grasslands make up the least charismatic ecosystem, the easiest to overlook or misunderstand. Yet its importance is impossible to overstate. All livestock and much wildlife depends on the grass of these lands.

Did you know?

Grasslands have adapted to cope with lightning strike fires.

 

In South Africa, grasslands flourish in high altitude areas where frost nips back any trees that dare set seed here.

At first glance, this mostly treeless land can seem like a great monotonous sea of nodding grass stems. Watch a little longer and notice the wind rippling complicated arpeggios over it. Take a walk into it, and inhale the sweet smell that rises on a hot day. Now you're hooked.

Look around. What you thought was a great sea of sameness is infinitely varied. At your feet, you may find a delicate ground orchid, an orange gladiolus or a wild arum lily. Look out for rare butterflies and birds like the endangered blue swallow.

In fact, the word grassland is a little misleading – only one in six species is a grass.

Grasslands are South Africa's prairie or steppes, and they are capable of supporting vast herds of animals. The early explorers marvelled at the constantly moving tapestries of wildebeest, zebras, eland and the predators that followed them.

Grassland conservation in South Africa is considered critical, because although grassland seems less charismatic than rainforests, say, they can contain more species, metre for metre. They also underpin, obviously, grazing for domestic and wild animals, and protect crucial wetlands.

South African grasslands make up the second largest ecosystem in the country, home to 3 370 plant species, 42 river ecosystems, protected by three World Heritage Sites and a number of provincial and national parks.

One of the best places to appreciate South African grassland conservation is at the Golden Gate Highlands National Park in the eastern Free State, or at one of the many parks along the Drakensberg mountains.