This IBA consists of the farm Alexpan, which lies c. 20 km north-east of Harrismith and at an altitude of between 1 760 and 1 840 m a.s.l. It falls within the Mesic Highveld Grassland bioregion of the Grassland Biome and specifically within the Eastern Free State Sandy Grassland vegetation type, which is under threat and is listed as Endangered. It is poorly protected with only 55.3% intact.
Most of the terrestrial habitat has been transformed and is now arable land and old fields with pasture grass. The natural wetlands are small ephemeral pans and there are also a few artificial wetlands (farm dams). In the north-western corner of the farm, near the district road, there is a shallow dam of c. 7.5 ha in extent, and six smaller ones (< 2 ha) occur on various other drainage lines. Although small in size, Alexpan holds water more regularly and for longer than the other local pans do. It therefore provides wet habitat for crane species for a longer period. Extending the boundaries of this IBA, to include more trigger species and intact habitat, will be investigated in the coming years.
At least 101 bird species have been recorded for the Alexpan IBA. This is one of the few places where Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculatus, Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum and Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus occur together, although they are not present in large numbers. The globally threatened Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres and regionally threatened Abdim’s Stork Ciconia abdimii have occasionally been recorded in the IBA. Yellow-breasted Pipit Hemimacronyx chloris, which is both globally and regionally vulnerable, has been recorded in the surrounding areas but not in Alexpan. The adjoining grasslands hold Southern Bald Ibis Geronticus calvus and are excellent habitat for Rudd’s Lark Heteromirafra ruddi and Botha’s Lark Spizocorys fringillaris. Near-endemic and endemic species occurring in this IBA are Jackal Buzzard Buteo rufofuscus, Grey-winged Francolin Scleroptila africana and Pied Starling Lamprotornis bicolor.
Globally threatened species are Blue Crane, Grey Crowned Crane, Southern Bald Ibis, Blue Korhaan Eupodotis caerulescens, Wattled Crane, Maccoa Duck Oxyura maccoa and Rudd’s Lark.
The sungazer lizard Smaug giganteus occurs in some of the farm’s grassland areas.
Alexpan lies in a region of commercial farmland where much of the natural grassland is used for grazing sheep and cattle and the remaining land is under cultivation. Fire is a significant hazard in IBAs in the Highveld grasslands and is one of the most serious threats to this IBA. Fires are frequent, can occur annually (from mid-winter to October) and are poorly managed in the region. When they burn at inappropriate times of the year, such as in early spring, they have a negative impact on breeding grassland birds.
The N3 road extension will pass the IBA within a few kilometres of the farmhouse. The building of it may increase potential future threats such as disturbance during construction and quarrying for material, as well as road kills.
Coalbed methane extraction is proposed for the Memel and Vrede region, but does not extend to the Alexpan area at this stage. There is an existing Technical Cooperation Permit for the north-eastern section of the Free State, including Harrismith and this IBA, for petroleum (shale gas) exploration, which is likely to be by means of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). There is, therefore, a potential threat of petroleum mining/fracking over the medium term.
Hunting the chicks of the larger trigger species has a direct impact on populations and is a significant threat.
The IBA is unprotected and does not have a conservation-orientated management plan. Biodiversity monitoring is limited, although the EWT is monitoring the sungazer lizard.
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Colahan BD. 1990. Cranes wintering in the Harrismith District, O.F.S. Mirafra 7: 109–111.
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Nuttall RJ. 1995. Sightings of interest – Free State region. Mirafra 12: 12–15.
Stoltz LP, Geyser B. 1973. The distribution of ibises in the Orange Free State with reference to the status of the Bald Ibis. Unpublished report. Dept. of Nature Conservation, Bloemfontein.