This site consists of a disconnected series of patches of Natal mistbelt grassland on 28 farms located in the temperate midlands of KwaZulu-Natal. The quoted area of 5,000 ha refers to the sum of these patches. The region is bounded roughly as follows: in the west by the Umtamvuna river; in the south and east by the 900 m contour line (below this the climate is too warm and dry for mistbelt grassland), and in the north by high ground above c.1,300 m (where the climate becomes too cold for mistbelt grassland). The terrain consists of rolling hills, dissected by rivers and streams, and lower-lying valleys thus occupy the intervening ground in places. Soils are often deep, allowing small streams to run underground, and sinkholes are a typical feature. The criteria for the inclusion of a farm within the IBA was the presence of one or more viable units of mistbelt grassland. Nearly all of these patches support Hirundo atrocaerulea, but two of the farms were included for their role in conserving other important grassland birds.
See Box for key species. This area holds one of the highest concentrations of Hirundo atrocaerulea in the southern African subregion. Thirty-eight nests are known, with another 10–12 likely within the IBA, and perhaps a further 10 at other sites near Ixopo (outside the IBA as currently defined) that have not yet been properly explored. Neotis denhami is relatively common, and two traditional lekking sites are located here. A colony of Geronticus calvus occurs on the Umzimkulu cliffs. All three cranes in South Africa—Grus carunculatus, Grus paradisea and Balearica regulorum—nest in the district.
Non-bird biodiversity: Mistbelt grassland is noted for its diversity of flowering plants and their high level of endemicity. Rarities typical of, or confined to, the Ixopo area—the heart of the range of Hirundo atrocaerulea in KwaZulu-Natal—include Satyrium rhodanthum, Gerbera aurantiaca, Dierama nixonianum and Helichrysum citricephalum. The frog Arthroleptella ngongoniensis is a highly localized endemic to this habitat. Invertebrate life is rich: two new endemic earthworms have been recently discovered, Proandricus bulwerensis and P. adriani.
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
The entire area consists of privately owned farmland, having been settled by European-style farmers for 150 years. Because the land was ideal for farming, no provision for formal conservation was made. Nevertheless, the nature of the way the land was used allowed most wildlife to survive. Cattle-grazing, for example, is a land-use entirely compatible with the well-being of Hirundo atrocaerulea. However, from about 1950 onwards timber has been more profitable, and the trend towards afforestation has accelerated since the 1980s. The climate and soils of the mistbelt are exceptionally favourable for timber, and there is great incentive for farm owners to sell their properties, or lease parts of them, to large paper-mill companies for the growing of plantations. Much of the region has now been converted into timber monoculture, and this remains the most direct threat to the largest population of Hirundo atrocaerulea remaining in KwaZulu-Natal. Even in the late 1990s, applications to plant timber in the few remaining grassland fragments are still received by the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (DWAF).Creative incentives to prevent sale of these fragments, and conversion to timber, will have to be implemented soon if this population of Hirundo atrocaerulea is to survive. Thirsty timber causes reduction or even cessation of stream flow, so new underground channels (nesting habitat for this species) are now most unlikely to be created. One solution to the nest-hole shortage is for interested land-owners to dig substitute holes. This measure has already had considerable success, and may offer the most realistic chance of conserving Hirundo atrocaerulea in the short term.Quite apart from the presence of Hirundo atrocaerulea, these grasslands merit conservation in their own right. Natal mistbelt grassland is endemic to KwaZulu-Natal, yet it has the poorest conservation status of all KwaZulu-Natal vegetation-types. Only 1,278 ha in total are formally conserved, a mere 0.3% of the original extent of this habitat. There are no prospects for increasing this figure, making privately held mistbelt grassland all the more important.
BirdLife International (2022) Important Bird Areas factsheet: KwaZulu-Natal Mistbelt Grasslands. Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 03/10/2022.