This IBA lies on South Africa's central plateau and consists primarily of rolling high-altitude (1 700–2 100 m a.s.l.) grassland interspersed with rocky outcrops. North of Dullstroom, the southern section of the Steenkampsberg breaks the rolling plateau grasslands with peaks up to 2 274 m a.s.l. The area receives an average rainfall of 1 025 mm per annum. Annual average minimum and maximum temperatures are 5 °C and 20 °C respectively, with a range from -8 °C to 39 °C.
Two wetland systems are particularly important in the Steenkampsberg area. The first is Lakensvleispruit (25°35'S; 30°05'E), which lies 8 km north-east of Belfast. This area is deeply flooded, with relatively depauperate flora. The most deeply flooded area, in the centre of the vlei, is occupied by beds of very tall reeds. The critically important northern edge of the vlei, known as Middelpunt (25°32'S; 30°07'E), is dominated by Phragmites australis on permanently saturated to flooded ground. In the 1980s two drainage ditches were dug, one on each side of the wetland, altering its natural hydrological regime. An increase in Phragmites penetration was subsequently noted. Several dams have been constructed in the wetland, some of which are shallow, with bare shorelines or small patches of fringing vegetation (often Phragmites). This area is surrounded by agricultural fields, with natural sour grassveld growing on shallow soils.
The second wetland system is Verloren Valei. Lying approximately 9 km north of Dullstroom, it comprises a large area of scattered wetland patches in a matrix of high-altitude sour grassveld. The patches are often extensive, sometimes heavily grazed and frequently burned. Some of the land to the south-west is incorporated into the Verloren Valei Nature Reserve.
Several other small but important wetlands occur throughout Steenkampsberg. Rolling grassland covers the remaining area. The core area, especially along Steenkampsberg towards Dullstroom, is covered by Endangered Dullstroom Plateau Grassland.
Lakensvleispruit is a very important wetland, and the northern section, known as Middelpunt Vlei, is one of the few sites in the world where the threatened and highly specialised White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi is regularly recorded. Corn Crake Crex crex has also been recorded here occasionally. Red-chested Flufftail S. rufa is numerous in the sedgebeds. African Rail Rallus caerulescens occurs alongside the flufftails in the fringing vegetation. This area hosts all three of South Africa's crane species: Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculatus, Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus and Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum. African Grass Owl Tyto capensis and African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus breed in wetland and flooded grassland habitats.
The grasslands in the surrounding area, especially in the Verloren Valei Nature Reserve, support Rudd's Lark Heteromirafra ruddi, which is highly localised within open, moderately to heavily grazed, level grassland. Yellow-breasted Pipit Anthus chloris is fairly common in mid-altitude, well-developed, lightly grazed grassland. Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus breeds in at least two colonies within the IBA, and the birds roost and forage throughout the area. Denham's Bustard Neotis denhami, White-bellied Korhaan Eupodotis senegalensis and Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus melanopterus are found in low numbers throughout the region.
On exposed outcrops and rocky slopes at higher altitude, Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus, Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciata and Sentinel Rock Thrush Monticola explorator occur. Gurney's Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi is found in the vicinity of protea woodland on the escarpment. Black Stork Ciconia nigra breeds on steep cliffs, but its current status is unclear. Occasionally, migrants such as Lesser Kestrel Falco naumanni, Black Harrier Circus maurus and Pallid Harrier C. macrourus are found within the area.
Globally threatened species are Southern Bald Ibis, Wattled Crane, Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, White-winged Flufftail, Rudd's Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit, Denham's Bustard, Blue Korhaan Eupodotis caerulescens and Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius. Regionally threatened species are African Marsh Harrier, Black-rumped Buttonquail Turnix nanus, Striped Flufftail Sarothrura affinis, White-bellied Korhaan, African Grass Owl, Black Stork and Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus.
Restricted-range and biome-restricted species are Kurrichane Thrush Turdus libonyanus and Buff-streaked Chat, both of which are common. Rudd's Lark, Yellow-breasted Pipit and Gurney's Sugarbird are uncommon, while White-bellied Sunbird Cinnyris talatala is fairly common.
North-eastern mountain grassland holds 78 endemic and near-endemic plant species on the Black Reef quartzites, mostly belonging to the Liliaceae, Iridaceae, Asteraceae, Lamiaceae and Orchidaceae families. A further 31 endemics occur on the dry dolomites. Several endemics are present within this IBA, including Zantedeschia pentlandii and Gladiolus cataractarum. The global range of the dwarf cycad Encephalartos humilis is restricted to the IBA and the surrounding district, where it grows on steep slopes in grassland. Other species found in the IBA that have small global ranges in central Mpumalanga include Aloe graciliflora, Agapanthus inapertus, Eucomis vandermerwei, Moraea modesta, Riocreuxia aberrans and Streptocarpus latens.
The rare rock catfish Austroglanis sclateri, giant girdled lizard Cordylus giganteus, rough-haired golden mole Chrysospalax villosus, serval Felis serval and African striped weasel Poecilogale albinucha have been recorded in the region.
The montane dwarf burrowing skink Scelotes mirus, a South African endemic, has been recorded in rocky montane grassland areas within this IBA, which may also hold other endemics such as the bronze caco Cacosternum nanum, rattling frog Semnodactylus wealii, striped grass frog Ptychadena porosissima, Karoo toad Bufo gariepensis, many-spotted mountain snake Amplorhinus multimaculatus, berg adder Bitis atropos, thin-tailed legless skink Acontias gracilicauda, Breyer's long-tailed seps Tetradactylus breyeri, black-spotted dwarf gecko Lygodactylus nigropunctatus and spotted dwarf gecko L. ocellatus. Verloren Valei Nature Reserve holds one of the largest populations of oribi Ourebia ourebi in the country.
Mining in the form of open-cast coal mining, and to a lesser extent sand and diamond mining, is one of the biggest threats to the area, and there has recently been a flood of prospecting and mining applications. According to the EMF developed for the Emakazheni Local Municipality in 2009, mining is not considered a suitable land use in this region.
General threats include afforestation of the grasslands with pines Pinus spp. and blue gums Eucalyptus spp., wetland degradation and increased acid rain and sulphur emissions from local power stations. Afforestation also has a harmful impact on wetlands, and they face several other significant threats. The construction of dams is disrupting ecosystem processes downstream, with the effect of turning wetlands into sterile stretches of open water. Overgrazing and the frequent burning of marshy areas in winter leads to accelerated run-off, soil erosion and the formation of dongas.
Several threatened species are dramatically affected by this wetland degradation. The habitat of the White-winged Flufftail is continually being degraded and reduced by damming, draining, grazing, burning and afforestation. In 1994, the Middelpunt Wetland Association (now the Middelpunt Wetland Trust, managed by BirdLife South Africa) leased the wetland at Middelpunt. It was fenced, and in 1995 the ditches were filled in. The effects of filling in the ditches, on both the vegetation and the birds, are being monitored. It is hoped that this heavily disturbed and grazed site will, with the help of the conservation-orientated Middelpunt Wetland Trust, return to its former state, benefiting the White-winged Flufftail population and encouraging Wattled Cranes to breed again.
Steenkampsberg once supported much larger Blue Crane and Wattled Crane populations. 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. The dams directly affect sponges used by the cranes for breeding by flooding them or attracting anglers, whose presence disturbs the birds. In the past cranes have suffered dramatically from intentional and accidental poisoning incidents.
This severely threatened region consists primarily of private and State-owned land. The only formally conserved area is the Verloren Valei Nature Reserve, managed by the MTPA. The reserve's boundary coincides with the Verloren Valei Ramsar site.
On 12 May 2011 a task team known as the Steenkampsberg Environmental Initiative was formed to assist the MTPA with conservation action in the area, in particular opposing inappropriate mining and development applications. The task team comprises representatives from EWT, BirdLife South Africa, WESSA, Mpumalanga Wetland Forum, the Federation for Sustainable Development and the Northvaal chapter of the Federation of Southern African Fly Fishers.
BirdLife South Africa has taken over the management of the Middelpunt Wetland Trust and therefore the White-winged Flufftail project. EWT's African Crane Conservation and Threatened Grasslands Species programmes have been active in the area since 1994.
There have been several financial investments in the area in recent years for wetland rehabilitation, with support from Working for Wetlands; and alien clearing, with support from Working for Water. Working on Fire provides assistance with burning fire breaks and controlling fires.
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