Habitat restoration can be done in a variety of ways that are well-documented and taught globally. But, although these restoration treatments are widely used, they are often not successful in the long term.

“It seems that there is more to successful habitat restoration than just mere methodol­ogy,” says Ken Coetzee of Conservation Management Services (CMS).

Commitment makes a difference

Ken and his partner, Wallie Stroebel, are based in George in the Western Cape, but they have built up a good reputation throughout Africa for habitat restoration. CMS’s success is based on training local communities to not only use proven methods of restoration, but also to be committed to making a difference and to cultivate a land care ethic to restore the land, no matter who owns or uses the land.

“This commitment ensures that there will be continuity and mainte­nance of the restoration interventions that are required to achieve the objec­tive of habitat improvement.”

He believes this commitment en­sures a deeper level of involvement, ongoing monitoring and the necessary adaptation and modification of the interventions as the climate and varia­tions of the site dictate.

Success depends on the detail

Success thus depends on a continuous hands-on approach, rather than leaving the restoration and follow-up to the mercy of restoration team supervisors. “Although they may be adequately experienced, they seldom understand or can deal with the finer but essential details of what they are implementing.”

These finer details determine the success of a restoration project. Two examples: Months of work to install ex­pensive gabions (wire cages filled with rocks) to prevent further erosion of a gully can be wiped away if the water can find its way beneath the gabions. Attention to detail, such as digging the foundation deeper, can prevent this. Also, the costly and time-consuming removal of an invasive cactus species will be wasted if even one of the plants or part of a plant is left behind as it will simply sprout and flourish again.

“The supervision of restoration inter­ventions must be continuous, with each phase carefully checked in detail to en­sure the necessary tweaking is done.”

His experience has taught him that this type of technical input is usually above what can be expected from local restoration work team supervisors.

This contour berm was breached by flooding water, but by simply shovelling the silt out of the trench and repairing the berm, the structure will again be functional.

Don’t wait, innovate

There are two ways to approach restoration work: you can approach it scientifically and do extensive research first, or you can immediately innovate a plan to curb erosion and stop the site from further deterioration.

“Whatever approach is followed, the methods used should always be based on the best information available, but do not allow natural landscapes to de­teriorate while you wait for science.”

Innovative experimentation, based on previous experience, is the only practical course of action. Rather act with imperfect knowledge to prevent the loss of biodiversity and abiotic resources in the soil.

“That is another reason why restora­tion cannot be left entirely in the hands of the implementation teams, as practi­cal knowledge derived from trial and error can play a huge role in the suc­cess of restoration activities.”

A stitch in time

There is an old saying that a stitch in time saves nine … This is also true about follow-up maintenance of restoration sites to determine whether the effort was successful or needs interven­tion.

“Water will always ‘try’ to find a way to get around an erosion control structure and in the process flood and destroy planting hollows or create new erosion gullies at the ends of contour berms.”

It is important to inspect rehabilita­tion sites, especially after rains, to de­termine whether any damage was done and to immediately repair or maintain previous work. “Regular maintenance is thus critically important,” says Ken.

Local supervisors must be properly briefed about the need for follow-up maintenance. “Time must be devoted to doing typical or required mainte­nance wherever restoration interven­tions are installed. The maintenance is usually quick to do, provided that the restoration sites are frequently visited as this will eliminate other and even bigger problems from occurring.”

When a restoration project is planned, it is good practice to schedule one week per month to do follow-up maintenance wherever it is needed most. “This scheduled action will help ensure that the desired habitat improvement will occur and that the interventions will have the best chance for success.”

He believes follow-up maintenance is not only an essential part of the res­toration project but also the most criti­cal part. “One frequently comes across examples of where well-intentioned restoration efforts contributed to the further degradation of the site, simply because follow-up inspection and maintenance did not take place after the initial work was done.”

If there is no in­tention (or financ­es) to do follow-up maintenance, then the restoration project should not be attempted. This may seem to be a negative approach, but restoration work is a costly activity and the typically insuffi­cient funding that is usually allocated for it must be used in the most cost-effective way pos­sible. This means that the initial intervention efforts must be followed up by inspection and maintenance, until the site is fully rehabilitated, no matter how long this may take. This implies the fullest com­mitment of all involved and sustainable funding to see the project through to its completion.

One must continuously walk through the restoration treatment sites, particularly after heavy rains, making notes about the repairs that may be needed, the mulch that may need to be reinforced and the other actions that may improve or speed up the restoration success. Failing to do this follow-up will certainly lead to the failure of the initial restoration effort.

Restoration practitioners must use every opportunity to spread knowledge about the principles and methodology of landscape restoration.

Check the success or failure

The restoration projects must be regularly monitored to determine their success. This can be done by taking photographs from a fixed point at regu­lar intervals. The series of photographs will record the success or failure of an intervention. This will help to avoid the same mistakes in future and will ensure the best use of the available funding.

Photography offers the best way in which to record progress at fixed points within a rehabilitation area, as these will provide useful information about the plant cover, which species sur­vived best, the composition and cover density.

“It is more important to evaluate the overall success of the methods used to improve the habitat, than to measure the detailed effectiveness of each indi­vidual intervention.

“In addition to establishing whether the methods used are effective or not, one should collect information about processes such as water infiltration, the build-up of plant litter, vegetation cover changes, the development of healthy topsoil, the incidence of important invertebrates and general soil surface conditions.”

This is a simple fixed-point method to photograph the same section of vegetation over a period, as the series of photos will provide a valuable and completely repeatable visual comparison for any restoration site.

Tell others about it

Ken also believes the experience of practitioners must be communicated as widely as possible. “This knowledge must be shared with those who need it most if landscape restoration is to become a new way of looking at our natural resources.

“Uncommunicated practical expe­rience is lost when the practitioner moves on, changes vocation, or dies. We simply cannot afford to lose this kind of knowledge any longer while for­ests decline, rangelands desiccate, and alien plants advance on the remaining natural wildlands.”

People can be educated at field days, farmers’ meetings, restoration workshops and student excursions, during which the methods and results of restoration interventions can be shared.

Contact details:

Conservation Management Services

Ken Coetzee and Wallie Stroebel

Ken: (+27) 76-227-5056 or consken@mweb.co.za

Wallie (+27) 82-493-1441

Website: www.conservationmanagementservices.co.za