Umgeni Vlei is located 20 km due south-west of Nottingham Road in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. The main vlei is about 300 ha in extent and is underlain by Karroo dolerite. It lies at an altitude of 1 840 m a.s.l., with the highest hill in the reserve at 2 081 m a.s.l. Mean rainfall is 980 mm p.a., falling mostly in summer. The vlei is a large sponge that is the source of the Umgeni River. Main habitat types include marsh areas dominated by sedges, flooded grassland and areas of Drakensberg Foothill Moist Grassland around the vlei. Rocky hillsides are scattered throughout the grasslands.
The extensive vlei is good for cranes and both Wattled Crane Bugeranus carunculatus and Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum regularly breed here. The vlei could potentially support White-winged Flufftail Sarothrura ayresi. Pale-crowned Cisticola Cisticola cinnamomeus forages and breeds in the flooded grassland adjacent to the vlei.
The surrounding grassland area supports several species of threatened grassland birds, including Blue Crane Anthropoides paradiseus, Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius, African Grass Owl Tyto capensis and Yellow-breasted Pipit Anthus chloris. The rocky terrain at higher altitude holds Ground Woodpecker Geocolaptes olivaceus, Buff-streaked Chat Campicoloides bifasciata, Sentinel Rock Thrush Monticola explorator and Drakensberg Rockjumper Chaetops aurantius. Both Cape Vulture Gyps coprotheres and the rare Bearded Vulture Gypaetus barbatus are visitors to the area.
Globally threatened species are Wattled Crane (3–5 breeding pairs and 10–30 individuals), Blue Crane (1–2 breeding pairs), Grey Crowned Crane and Yellow-breasted Pipit. Regionally threatened species include African Marsh Harrier Circus ranivorus and African Grass Owl.
Oribi Ourebia ourebi is present.
This is one of the most important sites in South Africa for Wattled Crane. Up to six pairs have nested in the main vlei, with four others nesting in four smaller vleis outside the reserve boundary. At least two pairs of Grey Crowned Cranes and one pair of Blue Cranes are also present. The site has been little modified in the past, having been used only for cattle and sheep grazing. A proposal to develop some of the surrounds for agriculture in the early 1980s precipitated the acquisition of the site by Natal Parks Board (now EKZNW) in 1987 in order to protect the Wattled Cranes. Cattle are allowed to graze in the reserve as directed by EKZNW. Quite apart from its biodiversity value, Umgeni Vlei is a valuable water catchment area, supplying as it does the Umgeni River, which supports a substantial proportion of South Africa's gross national product.
WWF-SA is currently engaging with landowners in the catchment as part of the Upper uMgeni Catchment Stewardship Project, which will bring considerably more important habitat under formal conservation.
Breen CM, Akhurst EJ, Walmsley RD (eds). 1985. Water quality management in the Mgeni catchment. Proceedings of the NTRPC and FRD Workshop, Durban. Natal Town and Regional Supplementary Report No. 12. pp 1–27.
Johnson DN, Barnes PR. 1991. The breeding biology of the Wattled Crane in Natal. Proceedings of the International Crane Workshop, Qiqihar, China. Baraboo, Wisconsin: International Crane Foundation. pp 377–386.