Matatiele town is situated in the north of the Eastern Cape, close to the border with KwaZulu-Natal. A notable feature of the landscape is the wide valley, the Cedarville Flats, that runs from east to west. It is flanked to the north by the Drakensberg and to the south by high-lying ground, which rises above 2 000 m a.s.l. Matatiele Nature Reserve lies due south of the town and abuts directly onto it. The landscape is steeply to gently undulating and ranges in altitude from 1 500 to 2 066 m a.s.l. In places the soil is shallow, and there are some rock outcrops and pavements that consist primarily of the Upper Beaufort Series. The climate is cool-temperate, with frequent frosts in winter. Rainfall averages 713 mm p.a. and falls mostly in summer.
Most of the site is pure grassland, although a sparse protea woodland occurs on some of the higher ridges and spurs, and scrub grows in sheltered drainage lines and rocky areas that are protected from fire.
Matatiele Mountain holds some extremely interesting and rare high-altitude grassland birds. Rudd's Lark Heteromirafra ruddi is present. Yellow-breasted Pipit Anthus chloris is the commonest bird in the grasslands on top of the mountain. Other pipits are Short-tailed A. brachyurus, African Rock A. crenatus and Mountain A. hoeschi. Some of the rocky gorges in the vicinity hold Cape Eagle-Owl Bubo capensis, and Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciata and Drakensberg Rockjumper Chaetops aurantius occur above 2 000 m a.s.l. Stands of Protea roupelliae here and on the edge of the mountain hold Gurney's Sugarbird Promerops gurneyi.
Other species to look out for in the grasslands include Grey-winged Francolin Scleroptila africana, Red-winged Francolin S. levaillantii, Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus, Denham's Bustard Neotis denhami, Black-winged Lapwing Vanellus melanopterus and Black Harrier Circus maurus. Sentinel Rock Thrush Monticola explorator occurs around rocky outcrops in the grassland. Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk Accipiter rufiventris breeds in introduced bluegums Eucalyptus species. Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres and Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus regularly fly over the mountain and the latter is thought to have a nest nearby.
Globally threatened species are Yellow-breasted Pipit and Rudd's Lark. Regionally threatened species are Short-tailed Pipit and Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus. Restricted-range and biome-restricted species that are common include Buff-streaked Chat and Yellow-breasted Pipit.
Matatiele Nature Reserve faces a number of threats that need to be addressed by reserve management, the most important of which is the spread of invasive alien plants along many of the watercourses. However, much of the reserve is in a good condition.
The Matatiele municipality has controlled the commonage since the founding of the town. It has been used as a source of income since then, yet is protected in the sense that it has never been ploughed, cultivated or built upon. It has been modified only in that the species composition of the grassland must have altered as a result of the fairly intensive grazing regime to which it has been subjected. That this regime favours Rudd's Lark must be regarded as the most fortuitous of coincidences. The balance between keeping the grass short, yet excluding unpalatable invasive forbs could easily be very fine. Matatiele was declared a nature reserve in 2007. The geopolitical boundaries of the area were redrawn in 2010 and Matatiele now falls within the Eastern Cape and no longer in KwaZulu-Natal.
The reserve is the only formally conserved site in which the endemic and endangered Rudd's Lark occurs. This species requires habitat with short, dense grass cover, typically no higher than 0.6 m, and it is known from only a few locations in South Africa. After interactions with EKZNW, the reserve authorities showed an interest in managing parts of the landscape for Rudd's Lark. Inputs were made and a management plan was subsequently developed. This presents a unique opportunity to manage the reserve for this species and staff should be encouraged and supported to implement these recommendations.
Due to the lack of recent records for Rudd's Lark at the site, surveys were undertaken with members of EKZNW, ECDEA and Matatiele municipality in December 2013 and December 2014. The survey failed to locate the species either in Matatiele Nature Reserve or in the surrounding areas. However, a healthy population of Yellow-breasted Pipit is present in the reserve. It is too early to make assumptions about the absence of Rudd's Lark, but future surveys need to be completed. Working with Matatiele municipality, EKZNW and ECDEA to ensure that suitable habitat for the species is maintained has become a priority.
Matatiele Local Municipality http://www.matatiele.gov.za/2013/07/matatiele-nature-reserve
Heard D. 2008. Matatiele Nature Reserve: Integrated Management Plan: 2008–2012. Matatiele: Matatiele Local Municipality.
Maphisa DH. 2004. Habitat selection and conservation of Rudd’s Lark Heteromlrafra ruddi: a Critically Endangered South African grassland endemic. MSc thesis, University of Cape Town, South Africa.
Marchant A. 2011. Rudd’s Lark management: Matatiele NR. Unpublished report. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.