WALKING PAST THE URBAN HERD

We had barely set off for a walk when, only a short distance from our home, we met this cow eating grass on a neighbour’s verge. As with most of these cattle that wander at will through the suburbs, this one looks in good condition. We found her calf lying down in the grass not far away. Apart from grass, they also eat aloes, succulents and browse on the branches of low-hanging trees.

Here is part of the rest of the herd grazing in the park between the street and the main road into town. The park hasn’t been mown for the best part of the year, so one cannot blame the cattle for being attracted to the green pasture – luscious compared to the dried out winter grass covering the rest of the veld.

These members of this Urban Herd had already started wandering up towards the industrial area on the edge of town. This lies at the end of the path and through the green bushes on the horizon. The mowing here has been done by the resident at the end of the road – not the municipality!

Many years ago this grassy area was a well-manicured lawn. No more: this cow is taking advantage of the municipality’s neglect to have a good munch before joining the rest of the herd going up the hill.

HEADING HOME

One of my readers mentioned the other day that I have been very quiet about the Urban Herd. Interestingly enough, there was no sign of cattle in town for the first few weeks of lockdown. I  mainly drive to the supermarket and back, yet even that short trip used to yield sightings of them in the road. I frequently spotted a herd on the grassy hill opposite to where I live and the (mainly) cows would walk past our gate and often settle on the lawn below our house. There was nary a sign of them.

Weeks have turned into months … the Urban Herd is back. I see them on the hill opposite now and then; sidestep the evidence of their passing on the street; hear their lowing occasionally; and today there were about fifty of them on the outskirts of town. Here are the first few of many heading homeward – wherever that may be – at the end of the day.

SYRINGAS

There was a time when Syringa (Melia azedarach) trees – also known as Persian Lilac (not a name I am familiar with) were planted as attractive shade trees in gardens and as street trees.

The Syringa is the large tree on the right, spreading across the street.

The origin of these trees is said to be in India and the Far East, from where they were largely imported for ornamental purposes. Apparently they were already well established in Natal gardens by 1894 and in the Lowveld in the early 1900s. Our municipality removed the indigenous trees we had planted on our verge and replaced them with syringa trees – what a scourge they are proving to be!

Their popularity as street and garden trees stems from them being both fast-growing and look attractive year-round. Their glossy green leaves provide deep shade and in spring the trees are covered in delicately scented lilac-coloured flowers, favoured by bees for their pollen.  This fragrance is especially noticeable in the late afternoons and early evenings after a warm day. The flowers are followed by clusters of golden berries which remain even after the trees are bare of leaves. My parents exhorted us from an early age not to eat syringa berries as they are highly toxic!

Given that each tree produces a significant number of berries, it is not surprising that that there are syringa trees all over the country, except for the driest regions. Syringas are invasive trees that are known to have choked streams and formed dense thickets that displace indigenous vegetation.

I have noticed that, among other birds, the Speckled Mousebirds and Knysna Turacos enjoy eating the ripe berries. Cape Turtle Doves and Laughing Doves settle on the streets to eat the fallen seeds that have been crushed by passing vehicles. Seeds are also dispersed by water. A look at the neglected watercourses that run through the town show how easily the trees propagate along the edges and clog up the flow of the water.

MAINTENANCE AND A MYSTERY

Our municipality won’t win any prizes for maintaining the infrastructure of the town. Grass verges are not mowed anymore; street lights do not always work; potholes get wider and deeper – never expect the holes dug up to repair water mains to be properly filled in and tarred over; sewage seeps across streets for weeks until stinking rivulets form; the electricity department tries its best; the water department probably does too – let us give them the benefit of doubt. Despite the long drought we have experienced (the ideal time, I would think) storm drains are never cleaned …

Speaking of storm drains, the cover of this one has been missing for years.

You can see that it is filled to the brim with leaves, twigs and grass – and, hidden from view, are plastic bottles, papers and cardboard. This one is situated on a corner (almost opposite our fig tree) and when it rains, really rains – as in buckets down for a day or two – the water bypasses this choked drain, dams up, and then spread across the road. The trouble with this is that it is at a low point and so all the soil, leaves and other debris is deposited there too – a road hazard.

A little further on is another storm drain on a straight section of the road. The cover of this one is, surprisingly, still intact.

It bears the name East London (just over 180km away if one travels via the N2). Presumably the cover was manufactured there.

Now the mystery: stuck in the tar, right opposite our front gate is this very old looking metal pin.

Could it be a survey pin? If so, why would it be in the road? If there were ever any markings on it (should there have been?) they would have been worn off by decades of passing traffic.