Michael O'Connor
16 minute read
17 Dec 2021

Long Read | Guardians of the forest

Michael O'Connor

The Ferncliffe forests are a cool and pleasant place that residents around the city have loved for years.

The Ferncliffe forests are a cool and pleasant place that residents around the city have loved for years.

A project to help restore the forests is under way.

Ferncliffe’s Eastern mistbelt forest is endangered (as are its pockets of grassland).

There are (were?) almost 70 species of fern at Ferncliffe — more than can be found in the entire British Isles. Neil Crouch wrote a booklet, The Ferns of Ferncliffe: A Rambler’s Guide as a PhD student; it was published in 1994. Crouch describes Ferncliffe as a “Green Belt” Reserve of some 250 hectares.

If one includes the plantation and riverine areas extending across towards Chase Valley (included in the proposed Ferncliffe Protected Environment Area), the total size is around 630 hectares.

The Msunduzi Municipality is the landowner.



A text called “The Hills Above Pietermaritzburg” by P.G. Alcock describes the area:

“Reference has already been made to the marked demand for wood in the early days, which was obtained from the hills above Pietermaritzburg. By 1861 concern was expressed at the cutting down and waste of the ‘town’s bush’. It was recorded in 1863 that ‘thousands of loads have been removed from Town Bush’, resulting in the appointment of an African constable in an attempt to stem uncontrolled felling. In 1865 it was decided to prosecute anyone found cutting down trees on the town lands. The African constable was later reinforced by a ‘Curator of the Town Bush’. Municipal concern for the dwindling indigenous forests also extended to the Swartkop Valley, once a water supply was piped from reservoirs in the valley to the residents of Pietermaritzburg (described below). The ‘Caretaker of the Reservoirs’ was given additional duties, and was appointed as the ‘Curator of the Zwartkop Bush’ in 1887.

PIETERMARITZBURG, SOUTH AFRICA – 1887: Laying of the foundation stone of the Pietermaritzburg Legislative Assembly. (Photo by Gallo Images/Natal Witness Archives)

“Quarrying and the mining of construction material has a long history in Town Bush Valley and to some extent in Chase Valley. A prominent Pietermaritzburg resident was Jesse Smith (1825–1900), who arrived in Durban with his wife (Agnes) on 9 May, 1850.

“Smith was a statuary and stonemason who came to Natal from Tunbridge Wells in the United Kingdom. Smith constructed a few mills (evidently water mills) in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, including one at Karkloof and another at Mooi River. He then settled in Pietermaritzburg. Smith first lived at 1 Boom Street, before buying about 16 ha of land ‘on the Hogsback’ in the present-day Ferncliffe Nature Reserve.

“The sale apparently took place in the mid-1850s, or alternatively in the period 1867–80. Smith began farming and investigated a number of sandstone cliffs in the reserve as sources of quarried stone for sale in Pietermaritzburg. Smith built himself a sandstone cottage (Ferncliffe Cottage) complete with outbuildings consisting of a storage room and stable for horses. The since-renovated Ferncliffe Cottage is now used as an environmental education centre.

“Smith’s quarrying operations involved the drilling of a series of holes in the sandstone cliffs, with wooden stakes being forced into the holes. The stakes were thoroughly doused with water, resulting in the swelling of the wood which split the rock along the bedding planes. Other methods of extraction included chiselling and blasting the rock … Smith transported the dressed stone by ox-wagon from the work site, down a track near Warwick Road, to his masonry works (later known as Jesse Smith and Sons) at the corner of Commercial (now Chief Albert Luthuli) Road and Loop (now Jabu Ndlovu) Street. A different version is that the stone was taken to Chase Valley by ox-wagon and then dressed to form building blocks, before being dispatched to Smith’s works in the city.

READ | Recasting Maritzburg’s heritage

“In about 1885 Smith was involved in an industrial accident when his foot was crushed. This event apparently resulted in Smith selling Ferncliffe in 1887 to Richard Mason. Smith moved to his stonemasonry works and subsequent home on the corner of Commercial Road and Loop Street. Smith’s son, William, took over the masonry business following the sale of Ferncliffe. By 1898 Jesse Smith had established branches of the firm in Durban and Johannesburg. The Durban branch was managed by another son (Frederick). The company trades today as the Doves Group (Pty) Ltd., and has offices in many towns across South Africa.

“Richard Mason was one of three brothers, with one brother being the miller at Mason’s Mill in the Edendale Valley. The second brother became the mayor of Pietermaritzburg. Richard Mason quarried for some years while evidently living at Ferncliffe and probably supplied Jesse Smith and Sons, before returning to town. Ferncliffe Cottage was used by the Mason family as a weekend and holiday retreat for a considerable period of time. Sowersby Joseph Mason, the son of Richard Mason, inherited Ferncliffe following the death of his father. The farm was auctioned after S.J. Mason died and was bought by the (then) Pietermaritzburg Municipality in 1936 or 1938. The grasslands surrounding Ferncliffe were planted to gum and pine by the municipality in 1954. About eight small dams were constructed by the municipality in the Ferncliffe Nature Reserve for forest fire-fighting purposes.

“Several stonemasons quarried sandstone in the Ferncliffe area in the early days, although Smith’s name lived on seemingly because of the excellence of his technical skills and products as well as his financial acumen. Smith’s many commissions in Pietermaritzburg included the foundation and base of the original City Hall, the old Grey’s Hospital, the Colonial Buildings, St Peter’s Cathedral, the Pietermaritzburg Post Office, some of the buildings at Fort Napier, the statue of Queen Victoria …”

Fernciffe — an aerial view of the forestPHOTO: DAVE SOUTHWOOD


Ferncliffe forest wilding was launched on August 4, 2021 by Connor Cullinan and Janine Stephen. Connor is a fine artist who grew up right next door to the reserve, and Janine is a freelance journalist. Besides art and words, they spend all our time in nature.

Our directors are climate change adaptation professional Sarah Birch, environmental consultant Brandon McGugan, and Connor Cullinan. We are also so grateful for the advice, help and enthusiasm shared by botanist Michele Hofmeyr.


Ferncliffe is a municipal nature reserve and green belt, but despite its biodiversity, rich ecological systems and importance as a catchment area, it has not been legally proclaimed as such. A decision to try and have it granted protected status has been taken by the municipality and various groups are working with the authorities to make this happen.

A biodiversity site assessment was held on September 21, 2021 as part of this process with other long-term stakeholders in the Reserve.

Besides ourselves (Ferncliffe forest wilding), these include Wildlands, A Rocha and KZN Mountain Biking. Conservation Outcomes has been helping with the process.

In February, The Witness reported that Msunduzi had given its endorsement to the proposal to proclaim the Bisley Valley and Ferncliffe conservation areas as nature reserves.

The move was hoped to help the City attract the funding from the Department of Environmental Affairs to upgrade these nature reserves upon the finalisation of the proclamation.

“The amount of game that is being poached around the City and especially in those reserves is, quite frankly, criminal.”
Mbongeni Mathe

General manager for community services Mbongeni Mathe said Ferncliffe was previously identified and gazetted by the minister of Environmental Affairs as a “critically endangered ecosystem”, thus it was worthy of protection.

He said the proclamation would lead to collaboration with provincial conservation authorities, which would result in the promotion of compliance with the relevant environmental regulations. He said it could also lead to increased investment in the municipality as protected areas and tourism had a longstanding mutually beneficial relationship.

“The amount of game that is being poached around the City and especially in those reserves is, quite frankly, criminal.”

Mathe said Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife was in full support of the proclamation proposal.

“With luck, this will mean Ferncliffe will be looked after and protected into the future; and be recognised as the irreplaceable green haven it is for the city and its people. It’s a natural asset!”

Edith Elliott-Dennison, chairperson for the Upper Mpushini Conservancy, said they would source funding for Ferncliffe, which “possibly would only qualify as a protected area until it is properly rehabilitated, but it could subsequently also be proclaimed in 19 years as a nature reserve”.

“Our motivation is to preserve and secure a vital university study and education area while securing endangered fauna and flora, preserving biodiversity and keeping a vital source site of key river systems in Pietermaritzburg — like Ferncliffe ,which we will also support — pristine, as a tourist and training area for all Pietermaritzburg’s people. This is why we also want to restore the education centre,” she said.

Since then the Biodiversity Assessment — in which Ferncliffe scored high in the “irreplaceability” category — went to the KZN Biodiversity Stewardship Review Panel. It was agreed the area, including the surrounding green belt of plantations and riverine areas, qualified for Protected Environment Status. The municipality (as landowner ) has agreed with the category of Protected Environment, and now the legal declaration agreements are being negotiated.

With luck, this will mean Ferncliffe will be looked after and protected into the future; and be recognised as the irreplaceable green haven it is for the city and its people. It’s a natural asset!

Back to Ferncliffe forest wilding …

Our story: In 1967, a young couple named Brendan and Châtelaine Cullinan moved to Glengarriff — a small citrus farm at the edge of a forest called Ferncliffe. Here, they raised their four children to have a deep love of the natural world. Today, sadly, both Brendan and Châtelaine have passed on. Birds and animals rediscovered the farm’s shady, quiet places below quinine and coral trees.

Brendan’s dream was to see Glengarriff become a nature conservancy; in March 2021 his son, Connor, and his partner, Janine, moved back to establish a rewilding and restoration project at Ferncliffe. It was launched in August 2021.

Yet alien vegetation has changed so much of the landscape.

Bushpigs, bushbuck and genets still live here, but other species like blue duiker and rock hyrax, once residents, appear to have vanished from some areas. In turn, larger predators like crowned eagles suffer. Forestry has nibbled the edges of the indigenous podocarps mistbelt forest in the adjoining nature reserve, and rampant property development is swallowing the greenbelts and farms of yesteryear.

Connor and Janine loved their lives in Cape Town, where they spent many leisure hours on the slopes of Table Mountain, hacking aliens in an area called Deer Park. Still, both missed the rich vegetation and summer thunderstorms of KwaZulu-Natal, never mind the profusion of wildlife. As the onslaught of climate change continued and Covid-19 struck, they felt it was time for change. No-one can heal the wider planet alone, but they’ve decided to do what’s possible right here, in this damaged forest — to try and put a tiny, devastatingly beautiful slice of the world to rights.

Ferncliffe originally stretched over 2 000 hectares on the fringes of Pietermaritzburg. It contains a diversity of life.PHOTO: DAVE SOUTHWOOD


In essence, Ferncliffe forest wilding is trying to tackle the alien vegetation that threatens the survival of the remaining pockets of riverine and mistbelt forest here. We plant trees too, to aid the restoration work. As Connor often says, when there are trees, the biodiversity will come. We want to try and improve the health of the forest and thus the biodiversity within it. And there are some specials creatures — endemic millipedes, wonderful forest birds and even larger mammals. Some on the Red List are vulnerable. We don’t even know if all insects and amphibians have been adequately recorded.

Removing alien vegetation is labour intensive — and with SA’s unemployment rates, this should not be seen as a problem. Repeat follow-up and weeding is essential. We see ourselves as the slow food movement of forest restoration projects: we are rooted to one place which we aim to know intimately; we don’t believe in ticking boxes or chalking up huge numbers of, for example, tree plantings or hectares cleared. We don’t clear cut, but use existing vegetation where appropriate to cast shade — both preventing triggering invasive seed banks from re-sprouting and protecting young indigenous saplings as they grow.

We believe anyone can make a difference if they just begin. We believe the forests above Pietermaritzburg are an enormous asset to the city and its citizens and thy deserve to be looked after and enjoyed.

Right now, we’re working in pilot sites in the green belt to test our methods (these are areas the municipality has said we can commence our project on). We check in with other stakeholders like A Rocha, who have been rehabilitating a site around Boulder Dam since 2007 to make sure our work doesn’t overlap, but that together we can make a greater impact.

We’re building support, and slowly starting to get donations — for trees, or of a day’s wage for “Forest Guardians” who collect a little data as well as do the hard work of clearing and planting. Others can adopt a tree — a forest giant that will otherwise be smothered by creepers or shaded out by invasive alien species such as bamboo. Beautiful gift, tree or adoption certificates will be sent to those who contribute. Art prints can also be purchased to support the project’s work.

Companies can also step up.

Ferncliffe forest wilding is deeply grateful to Husqvarna South Africa for donating two cutting-edge electric brushcutters and a chainsaw from their “Silent Nature” range. This will speed up alien clearing dramatically — plus is far more environmentally friendly as the batteries mean no petrol needs to be taken into the field, and noise pollution is vastly reduced.

The remnant of a tract of forest that once covered 2 000 hectares still contains an astonishing diversity of life considering its location on the edge of a city — from large mammals like bushpig, to endemic millipedes. It falls within one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Hotspot — an area with the highest tree diversity of any temperate forest in the world.

Yet like so many ecosystems in South Africa, it is degraded due to an influx of alien plant species. Climbers such Mauritius thorn (Caesalpinia decapetala) destroy mature trees; bugweed (Solanum mauritianum) blankets disturbed areas and forest fringes; and species such as Kahili ginger lily (Hedychium gardnerianum) take over the forest floor.

Ferncliffe NPC, launched in August 2021, seeks to tackle this devastating tide.

We wanted to join the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration’s call to action — to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems.

The non-profit company seeks to clear alien vegetation and speed up restoration by planting trees native to the area. An early success is that over 150 paintbrush lilies (Scadoxus puniceus) have appeared in an area cleared of Kahii ginger. It subscribes to rewilding principles, which are about allowing natural ecological processes to repair damage as far as possible. Reintroducing lost species can accelerate recovery.

The young NGO also aims to provide job opportunities for individuals and entrepreneurs. Workers can learn more about alien and indigenous vegetation, and help to collect data and species sightings.

The emphasis is on the steady improvement of the environment and constant follow-up rather than blanket clearing. Ferncliffe will use methods suggested by forest ecologist Dr Coert Geldenhuys. Invading bugweed, for example, may be best controlled with minimal intervention or thinning only — it will not germinate in shade and can provide a “mock canopy” that protects indigenous saplings that grow under and eventually supplant it.

The project has begun working in three pilot project areas, with varying levels of alien invasive plant infestations. It will record change as best possible, using drone and satellite imagery if resources allow, as well as ground-level photography and video. It has joined Switzerland-based Restor — a “science-based open data platform to support and connect the global restoration movement”. Here, projects sites can be mapped and aerial change recorded over time.

Performing baseline studies will depend on funding acquired, but Ferncliffe records species encountered on an ongoing basis using apps such as Birdlassser and iNaturalist as well as old-fashioned lists and sightings books. Researchers and experts are encouraged to visit to aid this process.

Forest weaver by Connor Cullinan.
Forest weaver by Connor Cullinan.
Cape porcupine by Connor Cullinan.

Additional threats to the forest are fire, poaching, unsustainable medicinal plant collection and pollution. Yet Ferncliffe has enormous potential to become precious green space for city residents, much like Table Mountain National Park in Cape Town. Activities such as hiking, birding and mountain biking are already under way. This misty world under the canopy deserves protection and restoration.

Ferncliffe NPC depends on donations and fundraising to do its work — and it’s only just started. Visit Ferncliffe.org for more details.

To help fund the registered NPO’s vital work, Cullinan is producing a series of original art prints that are sold online as open editions via https://ferncliffe.org.

Since 1991, Cullinan has participated in several solo and group exhibitions at a number of respected galleries. These include Obert Contemporary, Erdman Contemporary, Barnard, whatiftheworld and Daor Contemporary. His screenprints have been shown at the FNB Joburg Art Fair, Cape Town Art Fair and Turbine Art Fair. Outside of South Africa, he has showcased his work in Queretaro and Oaxaca in Mexico; his paintings and prints form part of the Nando’s permanent collection and are on show in various countries; and his work is held in private collections in Europe and the United States.

His beautifully illustrated images in aid of Ferncliffe are based on the fauna and flora that can be found in the forest and on its fringes. The first two prints in this ongoing series have already been released and were produced at Black River Studio in Cape Town. They depict a tenderly hand-drawn porcupine and the vibrantly yellow Forest Weaver. These art prints make a meaningful acquisition, whether for a formal art collection or to grace the walls of your home.

Ferncliffe has made it possible for members of the public to support the project in other ways, too. You can adopt an existing tree, plant a tree (which comes with an exquisite tree certificate appointing you as an honorary forester), make a straightforward donation, or contribute to unemployment alleviation by sponsoring a day’s wage to clear invasive aliens.

As a festive special offer running from December 8-20, 2021, all trees that can be planted at Ferncliffe will be available at 25% off.

Support Ferncliffe via social media:

Facebook — @ferncliffeforestwilding

Instagram — @ferncliffeforestwilding

Twitter – @Ferncliffe11

• Ferncliffe is a registered Not for Profit Company (number 255-924 NPO), based in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. It is also registered as a Public Benefit Organisation, number 93 007 2645, and can issue Section 18A tax certificates on request.