04 June 2015 Volume :3 Issue :27

UKZN Offered Unique Research Facility by Oppenheimer Family

UKZN Offered Unique Research Facility by Oppenheimer Family
From left: Farm manager Mr Thulani Mnguni, Mr Nicky Oppenheimer, Professor Kevin Kirkman and Mr Duncan McFadyan at the Umgenipoort Research Facility.

The Oppenheimer family, owners of the farms Wakefield and Umgenipoort, recently entered into an agreement with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) to make their properties available for research and teaching activities.

The properties are close to Nottingham Road in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, and are about a one-hour drive from Pietermaritzburg.

The properties comprise mainly grassland over a varied topography, from steep upland slopes down to flat riverine areas along the Umgeni River, with access to indigenous forests. These farms are currently grazed by Nguni cattle, and managed on the principle of focused, intensive grazing for relatively short periods with long periods of recovery after grazing.

Umgenipoort contains a collection of buildings comprising an old nunnery, and these have been made available to UKZN as a Research Centre, with accommodation for researchers and students. The College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science has welcomed the opportunity to develop and use this facility for the purpose of research by staff and postgraduate students, as well as for field-based teaching of undergraduate students.

The ideal location of these properties and their varied habitats create opportunities for research in a range of ecological and environmental fields, including grassland ecology, forest ecology, applied behavioral ecology, animal behaviour, entomology, water related ecological research, veld management, environmental research and human/nature interactions.

The Centre is also ideally placed for undergraduate field based learning, with the accommodation on site allowing cost effective options for field trips for students in the School of Life Sciences, the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences and the School of Engineering.

These will form important components of the curricula for ecological, environmental and agricultural students, with opportunities to get involved in ecological surveys of vegetation, animals and soils, which are requirements for several degree programmes. These, in turn, can form the basis of future research projects.

‘Experience has shown that undergraduate students on field trips frequently develop a passion for research and it is likely that many undergraduate students who visit the site as part of their undergraduate degrees, will get involved with postgraduate research at the site,’ said grassland scientist Professor Kevin Kirkman, who is also Director of Professional Services for the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.

The vision for effective utilisation of the facility is to ensure that it is equipped with the basic requirements for accommodating researchers and students, with facilities conducive to fieldwork and undergraduate field trips.

To date, several undergraduate (third year) field trips have been held successfully, and all students and staff participating have been very enthusiastic about the facilities and the opportunities for research.

PhD student, Sindiso Chamane, has set up grazing enclosures to measure the impact of cattle grazing and trampling on the forb component of grasslands. While grasses contribute the majority of the biomass in grassland, non-grass species, or forbs, typically outnumber the grasses by about six to one and thus contribute significantly to biodiversity. This study is the first in South Africa to investigate these impacts in detail, and the results are expected to contribute to our knowledge of the impacts of livestock farming on biodiversity and consequently contribute to veld management guidelines.

Kevin Kirkman

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