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South Africa’s Bushveld Vegetation: An Introduction
Nov 21, 2022 | Written by Zoë Chapman Poulsen. Photos supplied by Eugene Moll.
Above: Vachellia robusta at iMfolozi, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo supplied by Eugene Moll.
When thinking of South Africa, bushveld is perhaps one of the most archetypal vegetation types, pictured by people thinking of the country’s Lowveld and alongside big game animals in the world famous Kruger National Park. According to some scientists, bushveld is considered a primarily vernacular term used in South Africa and Namibia for the vegetation that comprises South Africa’s Savanna Biome.
Above: Bushveld vegetation in the Nossob area, Kalahari, Northern Cape. Photo supplied by Eugene Moll.
Savanna vegetation comprises a continuum of vegetation types with varying degrees of canopy cover. There are dry forest areas with closed canopies, lightly wooded grasslands, arid shrublands and bushveld which comprises more trees than woodland but fewer trees than closed canopy forest. In many parts of southern Africa the term ‘bushveld’ is considered appropriate because the woody component of the vegetation does not often form a clear canopy layer. Instead the vegetation forms a low, often interlocking series of different canopies with various openings and often little distinction between taller shrubs and relatively small trees.
Above: Vachellia erioloba tree with large sociable weaver birds’ nest. Photo supplied by Eugene Moll.
Bushveld Vegetation Classification
South Africa’s Savanna Biome is divided up into several different bioregions, which are then subdivided into different vegetation types. According to South Africa’s National Vegetation Map (Mucina & Rutherford, 2006), a bioregion is a composite terrestrial unit that has similar biotic and physical features at the regional scale.
These include the Central Bushveld (22 bushveld vegetation types), Mopane (three bushveld vegetation types), Lowveld (15 bushveld vegetation types), Sub Escarpment Savanna (two bushveld vegetation types), Eastern Kalahari Bushveld (seven bushveld vegetation types) and Kalahari Duneveld Bioregions (two bushveld vegetation types). As discussed above, these vegetation types have similar vegetation structure but differ significantly in their species composition, climate, geology and soils.
Above: Example of bushveld vegetation, Kruger National Park. Photo supplied by Eugene Moll.
The climate that characterises this vegetation can vary from relatively arid to a more moist climate, with a hot and wet climate that is between four and eight months in length followed by a warm and dry season for the remaining months of the year. This rain usually falls during the summer months between October and April. Temperatures are usually higher than those in adjacent grasslands with most parts of the Savanna Biome being at relatively low altitude predominantly below 1 500 m asl.
Above: Example of bushveld vegetation in Mokala National Park, Northern Cape. Photo supplied by Eugene Moll.
Fire plays a key part in the ecology of savanna ecosystems. The dry season is the main window for vegetation fires as fuel loads of dry plant material increase. Fire is also considered to be an important management tool, in more arid areas being used to keep trees and shrub at a height that is within the reach of browsing mammals and in moister areas being used as a tool to control bush encroachment.
The higher the grass biomass within the vegetation, the higher the possibility of fire. Fires may occur at the start of the wet season, usually being caused by lightening strikes, with anthropogenic fires usually being started during the dry season. Fires that burn during the middle of the dry season usually tend to burn hotter than those that those at the start of the wet season. Some plant species only grow in association with fire refugia. Fire refugia in savanna comprise rocky outcrops, termitaria and bush clumps.
Above: Example of bushveld vegetation at Ndumo Game Reserve, KwaZulu-Natal. Photo supplied by Eugene Moll.
Conservation & Management
Much of the area encompassed by South Africa’s savanna biome, its ecoregions and different vegetation types play a key part in the farming of game and comprise some of the country’s most famous game reserves. Maintaining the right grazing load to modify competition between tree and grassy layers is considered key to effective management within this vegetation. Kruger National Park and others use an adaptive management approach including monitoring for ‘thresholds of potential concern’ being exceeded.
Climate change has been projected to cause significant problems with bush encroachment with woody vegetation such as bushveld from the savanna biome at risk of expanding into the neighbouring grassland biome. The more arid vegetation types including those in the Kalahari are considered most vulnerable to climate change. Ongoing monitoring using tools such as repeat photography is key to documenting and responding to this significant and widespread vegetation change.
Above: Example of bushveld in the Pilanesberg National Park & Game Reserve, Northwest Province. Photo supplied by Eugene Moll.
Rutherford, M.C. Mucina, L. Lotter, M.C. Bredenkamp, G.J. Smit, J.H.L. Scott-Shaw, R. Hoare, D.B. Goodman, P.S. Bezuidenhout, H. Scott, L. Ellis, F. Powrie, L.W. Siebert, F. Mostert, T.H. Henning, B.J. Venter, C.E. Camp, K.G.T. Siebert, S.J. Matthews, W.S. Burrows, J.E. Dobson, L. van Rooyen, N. Schmidt, E. Pieter, J.D. Winter, P. du Preez, J. Ward, R.A. Williamson, S. Hurter, P.J.H (2006) ‘Savanna Biome’ in Mucina, L. Rutherford, M.C. (Eds) The Vegetation of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland, Strelizia 19, South African National Biodiversity Institute, Pretoria, South Africa.
RePhotoSA: The repeat photography project of southern African landscapes.
Scholes, R.J. (2003) ‘Savanna’ in Cowling, R.M. Richardson, D.M. Pierce, S.M. (Eds) Vegetation of Southern Africa, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Van Oudtshoorn, F. (2019) Veld Management Principles and Practices, Briza Publications, Pretoria, South Africa.
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