29 August 2007

South Africa: Bitter-Sweet Parting for a Bulb Guru

Cape Town — Ardent conservationist and farmer Neil MacGregor was behind the wheel of his famous old bus yesterday, taking tourists through the equally famous fields of his farm Glenlyon to view the spectacular wildflowers that are blooming in their billions around Nieuwoudtville at this time of year.

But although MacGregor was doing what he loves best, explaining the ecology of this globally important biodiversity hotspot - Nieuwoudtville is the undisputed "bulb capital of the world" - and reeling off the names of the myriad gorgeous blooms in the fields, it was a bitter-sweet day for him and his family.

Because this was one of the last times that he will acting as a guide to the world's ecotourists, and in fact yesterday's "tourists" on his bus were guests at the official opening of the Nieuwoudtville National Botanic Garden, made possible by the sale of Glenlyon to the SA National Biodiversity Institute.

The farm has been in the family for four generations, and MacGregor, who was born there, has been farming it himself for the past 49 years.

"I'm quite emotional, it's going to be quite difficult for me to adapt," he confessed to the Cape Argus - not only because of his beloved wildflowers, but also because of the area's social ecology.

"I will miss this area, because I'm very in love with the people. I'm desperately fond of them - but I have to move on."

Within the next month or two, MacGregor, now 71, and his wife Neva will retire permanently to their "city" home in Tokai, where Neva is already very active in a restorative justice programme at Pollsmoor Prison.

"What I'll get involved with I don't know yet, but I will be very happy if it has to do with environmental matters. Fortunately I've been blessed with wonderful health and I've kept fit. And I do have a lot of friends who are involved in the environment."

His pioneering conservation farming work on Glenlyon had its roots in a love of conservation that started even while he was at school in Cape Town for 10 years. Then he went to Elsenburg College of Agriculture at Stellenbosch to study farming.

"I came back home to Glenlyon thinking I was God's gift to agriculture, but I was very soon disillusioned - it was a much bigger challenge than I'd realised."

Within a spring season or two while farming he also realised just how incredible and unique the flora of Glenlyon was, and he made it his life's work to see how profitable farming and conservation could be integrated into an ecological whole.

"I wanted to integrate everything into the farming system, for everything to be an asset at the end of the day, and it was a real challenge."

Although he admits he made some mistakes, the farm blossomed, literally and figuratively, and MacGregor became a conservation role model, although this took some time.

"We tried all sorts of things, including fencing off areas - initially, just the special flower areas - until we understood how to manage them properly, and then we could remove the fences.

"Initially, there wasn't much of a response from the other farmers, who thought it was a lot of nonsense.

"But when I started putting out the message that the (natural) vegetation, if looked after, was one vast fodder bank, it started getting through and was well received. I really do think farmers have had a wake-up call now and have got the message."

No pesticides or fungicides have been used on Glenlyon for the past 40 years, and although a sheep farmer, MacGregor also doesn't kill any so-called "problem" animals like jackals.

"With very few exceptions, chemicals are not sustainable, and you end up with a more serious situation.

"The deeper you go into these things, the more you realise how little you know."

MacGregor also helped with other conservation projects - notably the establishment of both the Nieuwoudtville municipal wildflower reserve and the Namaqualand national park. He pays tribute to the unsung assistance of the late Dr Anton Rupert for both these reserves.

MacGregor served as a trustee of the then National Parks Board from 1994-8, and in 1995 the World Wide Fund for Nature-South Africa awarded him a Gold Medal for conservation, of which he is rightly proud.

He and Neva have four children, now all married and spread around the world, and none able to take over the farm.

This is why MacGregor sold it to the SA National Biodiversity Institute, which raised the purchase price with the assistance of the national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Conservation International through its Global Conservation Fund, and the Leslie Hill Succulent Karoo Trust through WWF-SA.

Nieuwoudtville is South Africa's ninth national botanic garden, and covers some 6 300ha on the Bokkeveld Plateau where around 1 350 plant species have been recorded, including 80 range-restricted or endemics (occurring naturally only here).

"You need to think a thousand times before you just jump in and wipe something out - everything is part of one huge system, everything on God's earth has a role to play," says MacGregor.

"I have been very blessed."

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