School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Umgenipoort Research Facility Provides Unique Opportunity for Interdisciplinary Research

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Thanks to the generosity of the Oppenheimer family, UKZN has enjoyed access to an exciting research site facility near the source of the Umgeni River since 2015.

A visit to the site – at Umgenipoort in the upper reaches of the Dargle Valley – was recently organised to explore avenues for further interdisciplinary research projects and initiatives.

The UKZN Umgenipoort Research Facility consists of extensive buildings with accommodation and meeting rooms as well as the full use of the surrounding farmland, grassland and indigenous bush for research and teaching projects and purposes.

‘Umgenipoort is ideally suited for field trips and research projects across the sciences. Access is also available to the neighbouring farm, Wakefield,’ said farm manager, Mr Thulani Mnguni.

‘The varied habitat of these properties creates opportunities for teaching, field trips and undergraduate and postgraduate research in a range of ecological and environmental fields, including grassland ecology, forest ecology, applied behavioural ecology, animal behaviour, entomology, water-related ecological research, veld management, environmental research and human/nature interactions,’ said Mnguni.

A variety of postgraduate research projects have been conducted on the farm. UKZN grassland science lecturer Dr Sindiso Chamane did PhD research on the site by setting up grazing enclosures to measure the impact of cattle grazing and trampling on the forb (non-grass species) component of grasslands.

Students associated with UKZN’s Centre for Functional Biodiversity have conducted several mammalian biology studies at Umgenipoort, including a study on the habitat selection and home ranges of Cape porcupines in a farmland / peri-urban / suburban context; and home range and core area utilisation of three co-existing mongoose species (large grey, water and white-tailed) in the fragmented landscape of the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Other research has examined insects and biodiversity river monitoring through DNA studies of fish.

Undergraduate field trips have also been held successfully on the farm, for example by second-year Soil Science students who learned about the practical side of pedology – the science of soil formation and classification. Plans are also in place for second and third-year Land Surveying students to base their practical Survey Camps on the farm. The camps form part of the curriculum and give students practical hands-on experience to prepare them adequately for professional careers.

Head of the Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation Dr Duncan MacFadyen said his vision was for the facility’s usage to stretch beyond the scientific. ‘Umgenipoort makes an excellent venue for meetings, symposia, workshops and retreats with beds for 40 people,’ said MacFadyen. ‘We recently hosted a three-day manuscript-writing retreat for postgraduate Life Science students. Equally, we would like to open the venue to other Colleges at UKZN.

‘It would make the ideal venue for a creative writing retreat or for an artist in residence while science outreach initiatives for local school children are also possible.’

Umgenipoort, situated close to Nottingham Road in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, is about an hour’s drive from Pietermaritzburg. Students and staff who have made use of the site have been very enthusiastic about the facilities available and the opportunities for research.

School of Life Sciences Professor Colleen Downs said there were all sorts of opportunities for long-term monitoring studies at the site, such as the tracking of changes in weather patterns, plant growth and animal behaviour. ‘Looking to the future, we would love to establish an interdisciplinary Umgeni Biosphere Chair to drive and coordinate long term research and data collection related to the whole Umgeni catchment area,’ said Downs.

‘From the source of the Umgeni River, which rises in the wetlands above Umgenipoort, to its mouth some 232km away at Durban’s Blue Lagoon, one wonders what the impact of climate change and biodiversity has been on all associated life-forms – fauna, flora and human – over time?’

Staff and students interested in making use of the facility should contact Dr Sally Frost.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Supplied