This large area consists of c.150 private farms in the Belfast-Dullstroom region. The Belfast District border defines the northern, eastern and western limits of the site. The Middelburg–Belfast–Lydenburg road forms the southern boundary. The area lies on the central South African plateau, and it consists primarily of rolling high-altitude grassland (1,700–2,100 m), interspersed with rocky outcrops. North of Dullstroom, the southern portion of the Steenkampsberg, with peaks up to 2,274 m, breaks the rolling plateau grasslands. Within the Steenkampsberg area, two wetland systems are particularly important: (1) Lakensvleispruit (25°35’S 30°05’E) lies 8 km north-east of Belfast. This area is deeply flooded. The critically important northern edge of the vlei, known as Middelpunt (25°32’S 30°07’E), is dominated by reed Phragmites on permanently saturated to flooded ground. In some areas there are large tracts of virtually uniform sedge Carex, particularly at the vlei’s north-eastern end. (2) Verloren Valei, lying c.9 km north of Dullstroom, comprises a large area of scattered wetland patches. The wetlands have mainly short vegetation, predominantly grasses, forbs and short sedges less than 50–60 cm tall. Some marshy depressions hold patches of Typha, various Scirpus and Pycreus and taller sedges. Moist, sandy highveld grassland is found to the south-west of Belfast. The remainder of the area is covered by north-eastern mountain grassland, especially along the Steenkampsberg towards Dullstroom. The area also supports a wide variety of forbs and ferns, including many South African endemics. Rocky slopes, gullies and ravines favour the development of thickets dominated by Leucosidea.
See Box and Tables 2 and 3 for key species. Lakensvleispruit is a very important wetland, and the northern portion, known as Middelpunt Vlei, is one of the few sites in the world where Sarothrura ayresi is regularly recorded. This species favours patches of dry to moist Carex-dominated marsh, including areas intermixed with scattered single stems of Phragmites, in shallowly flooded, dense marsh vegetation, 0.5–1.5 m tall. It also occurs in taller, more deeply flooded, dense vegetation. Crex crex has been recorded here occasionally. Several pairs of Grus carunculatus frequent the Steenkampsberg area, especially at Verloren Valei. Grus paradisea and Balearica regulorum are widespread at low densities, although populations are greatly reduced compared to the mid-1980s.The grassland in the surrounding area, especially at Verloren Valei Nature Reserve, supports Heteromirafra ruddi, which is highly localized within open, moderately to heavily grazed, level grassland. Anthus chloris is fairly common in mid-altitude, well-developed, lightly grazed grassland. Geronticus calvus breeds at two colonies within the IBA, and birds roost and forage throughout the area. Neotis denhami, Eupodotis senegalensis and Vanellus melanopterus are found throughout the region. On exposed outcrops and rocky slopes at higher altitude, Geocolaptes olivaceus, Saxicola bifasciata and Monticola explorator are found. Promerops gurneyi is found in the vicinity of proteoid woodland on the escarpment. Occasionally, migrants such as Falco naumanni, Circus maurus and C. macrourus are found within the area.
Non-bird biodiversity: North-eastern mountain grassland holds 78 endemic and near-endemic plant species on the Black Reef quartzites, several of which species are present within this site, including Zantedeschia pentlandii and Gladiolus cataractarum. The global range of the cycad Encephalartos humilis is restricted to this site and the surrounding districts.
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
This severely threatened region consists primarily of private and state-owned land. The only formally conserved area is the small Verloren Valei Nature Reserve (5,500 ha), which is managed by Mpumalanga Parks Board; it is the only reserve in the world holding Heteromirafra ruddi.General threats to the area include afforestation of the grasslands with Pinus and Eucalyptus, wetland degradation, increased acid rain and sulphur emissions from local power stations, and accidental and targeted poisoning of cranes. Although the generally shallow and leached soils on the Steenkampsberg make them marginal for forestry purposes, plantations do occur around Belfast and Dullstroom in the southern portion of the IBA. Commercial afforestation of other areas in the southern portion of the IBA is feasible and remains the greatest threat to the area. Afforestation also deleteriously affects wetlands; planting of non-native trees with poor water-utilization efficiency results in reduced run-off around wetlands, leading to their drying out.Wetlands face several other significant threats. The construction of dams, particularly for trout fishing, floods these ecosystems, disrupting ecosystem processes downstream and turning them into sterile stretches of open water. Overgrazing and burning of marshy areas in winter leads to accelerated run-off, soil erosion, and the formation of eroded ravines.The Steenkampsberg once supported much larger populations of Grus paradisea and Grus carunculatus. The cranes have been negatively affected by various land-use activities, including intensive crop farming, increased rural and urban human populations, and the construction of dams for trout production, which impact breeding sponges directly by flooding them or attracting anglers, whose presence disturbs the birds. Cranes have suffered dramatically from intentional and accidental poisoning incidents. Grus carunculatus is now on the verge of extinction in Mpumalanga, and Grus paradisea lost 90% of its population in the Steenkampsberg during the dramatic 1980s crash. To combat the widespread poisoning, the Highlands Crane Group have initiated a farmer-awareness programme.Providing incentives for land-owners to manage grassland plots on their farms for particular species, or communities of birds, can be a very effective conservation strategy. Preventing habitat loss in grassland areas does not necessarily mean adding land to the existing protected area network, but it does require the continued practice of non-intensive pastoral farming in the grasslands. Appropriate conservation action within this region would be to stimulate the creation of conservancies and cooperation between groups of land-owners (farmers), conservationists and scientists who share a common vision for the conservation and management of the area’s biota.
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Steenkampsberg. Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 16/08/2022.