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IIn South Africa, grasslands flourish at higher altitudes where frost nips back any trees that dare set seed here. At first glance, this land with only sparsely scattered trees can seem like a great monotonous sea of nodding grass stems.
But watch a little longer, and you’ll 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 1 in 6 of all the plant species found here are grasses.
Grasslands are South Africa’s prairie or steppes, capable of supporting vast herds of animals – and they once did. The early European explorers marvelled at the constantly moving tapestries of wildebeest, zebra, eland and other antelope, and the predators that followed them. There are tales of springbok herds almost a mile wide, racing past settler wagons and still taking more than an hour for the whole herd to pass.
Sadly, it was rampant uncontrolled hunting by European adventurers and settlers – sometimes purely for trophy heads, horns, hides or ivory, leaving the veld littered with thousands of rotting, wasted carcases – that ensured such spectacles may never be seen again.
Nevertheless, conservation efforts dating back more than a century have ensured that South Africa still has a plentiful and varied selection of grassland wildlife, and many nature reserves and conservancies in which to see them.
Grassland conservation in South Africa is considered critical, because although this environment seems less charismatic than, say, rainforest, it can contain more species, metre for metre – and grasslands are crucial to the preservation of the wetlands found within them, too.
Grasslands, obviously, also underpin grazing for domestic animals like cows, horses, sheep and goats – not to mention all the grazers among the wild species. They support a wide variety of insect and bird life too, so a hike through a grassland reserve has treats aplenty for birders and bug fans.
South African grasslands make up the second-largest ecosystem in the country, home to 3 370 plant species and 42 river ecosystems, and protected via 3 World Heritage Sites and dozens 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 eastern Free State province, or at one of the many parks found along the Drakensberg mountains.