Middelpunt Wetland declared a Ramsar site

Good news for the White-winged Flufftail as this is its only confirmed breeding site in South Africa.

A White-winged Flufftail glides over the sedge meadows at Middelpunt Wetland (Photograph: Kyle Lloyd)

The White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresi) is listed as globally Critically Endangered with an estimated population size of fewer than 250 mature individuals. Ethiopia and, more recently, South Africa are the only two countries where the White-winged Flufftail is known to breed, with only one confirmed site in South Africa: Middelpunt Wetland.

Middelpunt Wetland Trust was established in 1994 by a group of concerned citizen scientists who regularly found the bird at the site and sought to improve the condition of the wetland. Dullstroom Trout Farm, the owner of Middelpunt Wetland, has been supportive of BirdLife South Africa’s scientific studies at the site to understand the bird’s biology better.

It was at one of BirdLife’s monitoring surveys that the first breeding record of the White-winged Flufftail was made in the southern hemisphere in the summer of 2018. Dullstroom Trout Farm joined the Greater Lakenvlei Protected Environment (GLPE) in 2017 when it was formed to safeguard the extensive high-elevation wetland systems in the area from external threats. Whilst this form of protection limits activities that could threaten biodiversity, it does not prevent them entirely.

South Africa is a contracting party to the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) and the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA). Under both treaties, the White-winged Flufftail receives the highest level of protection. In 2008, the International Single Species Action Plan (ISSAP) for the White-winged Flufftail was adopted. BirdLife South Africa has been acting as the coordinator of the AEWA White-winged Flufftail International Working Group (WwF IWG) since 2015, and was instrumental in assisting the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE) in coordinating the third WwF IWG meeting held in South Africa in 2019. At this meeting, it was decided that more formal protection was needed for Middelpunt Wetland to ensure the long-term protection of this important wetland.

The protection of the Middelpunt Wetland is crucial for the survival of the highly threatened White-Winged Flufftail (Photograph: Kyle Lloyd)

BirdLife South Africa gained the support of the provincial conservation authority, Mpumalanga Tourism and Park Agency, in meeting this objective. BirdLife South Africa also identified the importance of a neighbouring property belonging to Eland’s Valley Guest Farm, which supplies Middelpunt Wetland with lateral inputs (seeps). Both Dullstroom Trout Farm (308 ha) and Eland’s Valley Guest Farm (200 ha) were supportive of the declaration of the site as a nature reserve and so began the process of applying in early 2021. The two landowner groups formed the management authority, Middelpunt Nature Reserve Landowners Association, and entered into a co-management agreement with BirdLife South Africa and Middelpunt Wetland Trust.

Over 300 letters of support for the intent to declare Middelpunt Nature Reserve were submitted by the public, with letters of support also being submitted by AEWA, GLPE Landowners Association and Middelpunt Wetland Trust.

With assistance from Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency, the private nature reserve was officially declared on the 14 October 2022 (Mpu. Prov. Gazette No. 3449, Notice 211).

Middelpunt Nature Reserve is not only an important site for White-winged Flufftail – it also provides a diversity of floral and faunal species with habitat. This nearly 10,000-year-old, peat-based wetland also provides ecosystem services to the surrounding farming community through water retention, purification and flood attenuation.

For the global community, the ~2m deep peat layer is an extensive carbon sink that continues to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

For all these reasons, the nature reserve was considered for designation as a Ramsar Site, recognising it as a wetland of international importance under the Convention on Wetlands. The Convention on Wetlands is an intergovernmental treaty established in 1971 in the Iranian city of Ramsar. It provides a framework for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. There are over 2,000 Ramsar Sites listed by over 160 countries. South Africa was one of the first countries to join the treaty, and has since designated 29 wetlands as Ramsar Sites.

National government (Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment) and provincial government (Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency) led the application process for Middelpunt Nature Reserve to be considered as a Ramsar Site with inputs from BirdLife South Africa. The reserve was officially designated on 15 March 2023, becoming the world’s 2,501st and Mpumalanga’s second Ramsar Site. The nearby Verloren Valei Nature Reserve has been a Ramsar site for some years, and the White-winged Flufftail also reside there.

The following organisations worked together to complete the successful designation of the Middelpunt Nature Reserve as a Ramsar site: Dullstroom Trout Farm, Eland’s Valley Guest Farm, Middelpunt Wetland Trust, Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency, South Africa’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, Rockjumper Birding Tours, Bickel Conservation, The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Jones & Wagener, Eskom through the Ingula Partnership, Elandskloof Trout Farm, and the many individuals who have contributed to the research and conservation of Middelpunt Wetland.

“Our hope is that Middelpunt Wetland will be a bastion of nature conservation in South Africa and the world for many years to come,” says Dr Kyle Lloyd, Wetland Conservation Project Manager/Rockjumper Fellow of White-Winged Flufftail Conservation.

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