In 1950, the 500 acre farm ‘Roblyn’ which constituted part of ‘Shortt’s Retreat’ just outside Pietermaritzburg was purchased by the State for R64 000. It was aptly named Ukulinga (meaning ‘to test’ or ‘to endeavour’ in isiZulu) by Effie Scott, the wife of James D Scott. Adjoining land was later purchased increasing the farm to 356 ha. In 1973, it was transferred to the University with the proviso that it continued to be used for educational purposes. In March 1998, an agreement between the Pietermaritzburg Msunduzi Transitional Local Council and the University was signed, formalising the joining of 100 hectares of Ukulinga to the Bisley Nature Conservancy. This brought to fruition a vision of Frits Rijkenberg, then Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture: the creation of a conservancy area that would provide the Faculty’s Wildlife Science students with innovative and interactive training and learning opportunities.
Aerial view of Ukulinga Research Farm
Since its inception, Ukulinga has been the site of unique and ground-breaking research in several agricultural disciplines. Two of the world’s longest running ecological trials, the Veld Fertilisation Trial (VFT) and the Burning and Mowing Trial (BMT), were started by Scott in 1951 and have continued uninterrupted since then. The original objectives of the trials were primarily agricultural. Treatments in the BMT were designed to examine the influence of mowing moist tall grassveld at different times in summer, and removing the aftermath in winter by burning or mowing, on the yield and quality of hay. The VFT was designed to examine possible ways of increasing the yield of veld by fertilising with various elements. These trials are currently the focus of several internationally funded research projects aimed at examining ecosystem processes across continents. This approach epitomises the change from an agricultural focus many decades ago to an ecological focus, which in turn feeds back into agricultural management.
Grassland mowing and buring trails
The breeding of hybrid maize and the testing of all hybrid maize bred in the country before being released has been carried out at Ukulinga. Furthermore, Rob Melis initiated the first dry bean breeding programme for small scale farmers in KZN from 1981 to 1990. The programme was sponsored by the De Beers Chairmans’ Fund. The objective was to develop disease-resistant dry bean cultivars. This led to Melis establishing Pro- Seed in 1990, which is a private plant breeding business at Ukulinga research farm. For three decades Melis has released over 27 registered cultivars of dry bean, tomato and pepper. He developed the Ukulinga Sugar Bean variety (named for the farm), an easy-to-harvest sugar bean; an all-rounder adapted to most bean production areas.
Prof Rob Melis
Horticultural research on many kinds of fruits and nuts, including the release of the scab tolerant ‘Ukulinga’ pecan nut cultivar and ‘Honey Gold’ female pawpaw – the oldest pawpaw clone in the world, has also borne much fruit.In the 1960s, George Hunter conducted revolutionary research that involved the use of rabbits as intermediate living incubators to transport fertilised ova from ewes in England to South Africa, where they were successfully transferred into local surrogate ewes resulting in the birth of twin lambs, Romulus and Remus – now immortalised in an ornate clock created by John De Villiers as part of his Masters in Fine Arts dissertation, which hangs in the foyer of the Rabie Saunders building. In 1995 another turning point in animal breeding was achieved when Africa’s first test-tube calf was produced involving the Department of Animal and Poultry Science.
Over the years pioneering research in the area of Poultry Science has been undertaken and Ukulinga currently boasts internationally recognised facilities for poultry production. Rob Gous has been a pioneer in poultry research and an advocate for quality instruction and preparation of graduates. Work conducted at the state-of-the-art poultry facilities result in many publications on nutrition, reproductive physiology and modelling for broilers, layers and broiler breeders.
Last but not least, Agricultural Engineering is another discipline that has always been prolific at the farm. Its research on hydrology and the development of simulation techniques and systems to reduce the cost of transporting agricultural products is known far and wide.
Sources: University of KwaZulu-Natal: Celebrating 60 Years of Agriculture and ‘A Fine Band of Farmers Are We’ by Bill Guest, 2010, Natal University Press