Keeping Nature’s Valley Natural
June 26, 2018

by Liezl Retief

At first, I hear it only in the distance, but the footsteps get louder and louder as they pass right by my bedroom window. I open my city-accustomed eyes, marvelling again at the quiet, pitch darkness that engulfs the Valley at night. I suppress the impulse to switch on the light and move quietly to the nearest window, careful not to alert the unexpected visitor of my presence. His head is the first thing I can make out, his silver mane glistening in the dim moonlight as he crouches down between the Candlewood trees. Suddenly, he moves out into the open, his nose close to the ground as he looks for bulbs he can pull out with one sudden sweep of his strong jaws. I watch him in awe as this blissful bush pig passes close to my door and disappears into the night once more. I am left feeling content and marvel at the luck I have had to see such a beautiful beast in my garden.

The next day, while making food, I hear the distinctive sound of fallen leaves being crushed under several feet. I rush to the open door, expecting to find prying baboons, trying their luck at procuring some food. Instead, I am met by two bushbuck ewes, inquisitively staring at me through Yellowwood leaves. As I happily watch them, a tiny lamb shyly pears out from behind them and, as time passes I become aware of a ram in the distance. His white legs are the first thing I see as this boisterous male quickly rushes past, the others not far behind. Again, I wonder at my good luck of being able to see something like this right in my backyard.

In the afternoon, while sitting outside in the garden reading one of my favourite books, I hear the soft rustling of leaves above, as I peer through the lush green canopy I see a tiny bird bouncing through the trees, another closely following. I have often thought that, unlike most bird species, the female Cape Batis, with the rust-brown colour on her throat and chest, is the more attractive of the two. Nevertheless, I look at the pair happily hopping from branch to branch. Before I get a chance to return to my book, I hear the distinctive “Kaw-kaw-kaw-kaw-kaw” sound coming from somewhere behind my head. With its grass-green head fading into its blue-green body and its bright red feathers only displayed when it takes flight, I have always thought that the Knysna Turaco is almost too beautiful to be a real bird. This cheeky resident of my garden visits daily, and I often look at him as he hops from tree to tree chasing away other birds in the area. He now stares at me while perched on a September Bush branch. What delightful luck don’t you think? 

Content and feeling I have read enough, I walk back to the house. I look up and there he stands proudly, a little grey mongoose sniffing the air. As he sees me he quickly scurries off into the undergrowth and once more I think of my good fortune. As dusk settles in I busy myself in the house and soon find that the forest surrounding my dwelling has once more faded into darkness. As I reflect on the day and remember all my visitors, I suddenly become aware that I am not alone. I note the beautiful black stripes sequentially breaking up the gorgeous yellow-brown tail first as she softly moves down the Butterspoon tree trunk right outside the large glass window. Noiselessly she drops to the ground and passes right by the glass door. This large spotted genet seems to have little concern for my gawking face as she walks past, joining the bush pig somewhere in the dark night. What have I done to be so lucky?

So, why have I had all this luck? This is not a unique few hours I describe of animals happily passing through. I have fond memories of seeing fireflies and bush pigs as a child, as well as Robins and butterflies, hearing moles digging under my feet or quickly catching a glimpse of the boomslang high up in the canopy, where it could hold no threat to us earth-bound mammals. Even when I was working for NVT, I got weekly visits from the bush pig, I saw signs of bushbuck on the nibbled tree leaves and the Knysna Turaco became a daily sight. I ask again, why is our garden so blessed? I often hear people say they have rarely seen a genet in Nature’s Valley or that in all the years of coming to the Valley, they have never been able to spot a bush pig. What makes our garden different? Although I mention an array of tree species, we do not own a house on Forest Drive adjacent to the magnificent Tsitsikamma forest. Our property is unassuming, many drive past without a second glance, why then, does Nature’s Valley’s wildlife find it so inviting?

Of course, over the years we have done a few things to deserve this luck. At night we keep lights to a minimum, I only switch lights on when I need to and, at night, when I go to bed, I switch off all lights both indoors and outdoors. Although often forgotten as many of us come from large cities perpetually lit up at night, light pollution can disorientate wildlife and cause them to give our lit-up gardens a wide berth. This underappreciated form of pollution can be detrimental to both fauna and flora. It disrupts the clock of certain plants, making them believe spring has come and resulted in shifting flowering patterns. Insects are often fatally drawn to unnatural light which results in the decline of insect numbers, decreasing the amount of food available to insect eaters in the area. The list of affected species is long.

I believe another big reason why our residence is so blessed with wildlife has to do with the way we garden or, rather, the fact that we don’t. Over the years we allowed the plants to grow in abundance around our little log cabin and today it stands snug among the trees, allowing us to experience the bountiful wildlife of Nature’s Valley right at our doorstep. Of course, many of us take great pride in our gardens and find it relaxing to spend time in them during our yearly break from our busy lives. So, if your garden does not already host large indigenous trees or beautiful fynbos flowers, fill it with the incredible species growing naturally in the area and make your garden an oasis for the incredible wildlife that still calls Nature’s Valley home. The plant species indigenous to this area are so magnificent so, forget the sword ferns, Christmas roses and eugenias and instead plant ericas, pincushions or maybe a few Candlewoods.

Importantly, our property has also never been fenced in, making it possible for wildlife to easily move from one area to the next without obstruction. When gardens become fenced in, it effectively fragments the corridors animals are using to move through our beloved Valley and, eventually, if it becomes too fenced in, the animals will not be able to easily move through at all. Of course, the best would be to have no fences at all, but for many of us, fencing may become important during the holiday season when we require a safe space for our beloved pets to stay. However, when the time comes to heavy-heartedly lock those front doors for the last time in the holiday season, why not leave a front and a back gate open so that the wildlife have an area to utilise and move through once more?

Moreover, even though I grew up part of a plant enthusiast family, and was taught from an early age about the wonders of our indigenous flora, not putting up electric fences to deter the odd passing bushbuck from happily nibbling on prized pin cushions or the like has not resulted in our garden being a barren landscape. While protecting plants when they are young (by perhaps spanning a net around them until they are fully established) may be important for their survival, we must also remember to share our Valley with the nature that surrounds it and believe that our beloved plants are hardier than we give them credit. 

We are often so used to our city lifestyle, having no wild animals bar the beautiful birds singing in our gardens back home that we sometimes forget here, in Nature’s Valley, we are only borrowing our gardens from the array of wildlife species that have called this place home long before our arrival. The Butterspoon has thrived for centuries, the Protea can withstand fire, and the Streptocarpus flowers yearly. These plants have lived in harmony with the fauna of the area before our appearance. So, why not let nature take its course? Plant indigenous plants, worry little if they lose a leaf here and there as a result of hungry bushbuck, forget the fences when we have no pooch with us and switch off those lights when darkness creeps into the Valley. Soon you too may become accustomed to hearing the footsteps of the bush pig or seeing the genet noiselessly move through the dark. Can you just imagine being so lucky? 



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