Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve

Year of compilation: 2001

Site description
The northern boundary of this reserve lies 13 km south-west of Harrismith, while the southern edge lies along the border with KwaZulu-Natal, just west of Oliviershoek Pass. Most of the eastern boundary runs along the Free State section of the road (R74) through the pass. The reserve lies in the grassland and alpine belt between 1,700 and 2,328 m, and consists of rolling sour grassland surrounding the state-owned Sterkfontein Dam, which receives most of its water from the Tugela river. The vegetation is primarily high-altitude montane grassland. The western portion of the reserve includes part of the northern end of the ‘Little Drakensberg’ section of the escarpment, holding cave sandstone cliffs that are dissected by streams to form valleys and gorges. High-altitude shrubs form a heath of Protea, Erica, Chrysocoma and Helichrysum. Stands of Leucosidea occur on some of the slopes and small patches of Afromontane forest are found in a few gorges.

Key biodiversity
See Box and Tables 2 and 3 for key species. This area supports some highly threatened grassland species including the critically threatened Heteromirafra ruddi; it also supports breeding Geronticus calvus and holds a breeding Gyps coprotheres colony, which falls just outside the reserve. Both Grus paradisea and Balearica regulorum are found in the reserve. Small numbers of Neotis denhami, Circus macrourus and Tyto capensis are found on the reserve. Several other grassland species, such as Saxicola bifasciata, Geocolaptes olivaceus, Anthus crenatus, Promerops gurneyi, Monticola explorator and Eupodotis caerulescens, also occur here. The small patches of Afromontane forest support Serinus scotops and Lioptilus nigricapillus.

Non-bird biodiversity: The reserve is known to hold the following threatened or endemic herptiles: Cordylus giganteus (VU), Tetradactylus breyeri (VU) and Bradypodion dracomontanum. The mammal Myotis lesueri (VU) is known to occur in the surrounding grassland.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
This IBA is a Provincial Nature Reserve (proclaimed in 1987) surrounding a state dam; the water-level is managed by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF). Most of the land that formed the farm Craighielea 598 is managed, under contract, as part of the surrounding reserve. The western perimeter of the reserve borders on a state-subsidised scheme for small-scale farmers, the dam wall and area below it are controlled by DWAF, and the remainder of the reserve boundary lies adjacent to commercial farmland, used primarily for sheep and cattle-grazing. The southern boundary tends to follow the edge of the escarpment, including the section falling in the farm Ingwe 8547, below which lies the breeding colony of Gyps coprotheres.

Emergency grazing of cattle in the reserve during extreme drought has been permitted in the past, but is not likely to occur again. The surrounding land is used primarily for agriculture. Overgrazing threatens several birds, as different intensities of grazing suit different species. Management practices, such as burning the grassland in November during the primary breeding season, may affect certain bird populations. Vultures feed upon poisoned carcasses that are set for vermin by commercial farmers, and the entire colony is thus at risk from a single poisoning incident. In addition, vultures are used for traditional medicinal and ceremonial purposes and traditional practitioners target them. There is a vulture restaurant in the reserve that is utilized by Gyps coprotheres and Gypaetus barbatus, which visit 2–3 times a week. The restaurant is maintained using cattle carcasses from natural mortality in a nearby cattle feedlot.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Sterkfontein Dam Nature Reserve. Downloaded from on 24/01/2022.