Black Wattle: The South African Research Experience

Dunlop RW, MacLennan LA
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The research conducted at the Wattle Research Institute / Institute for Commercial Forestry Research and by other individuals and organisations over the past fifty years has played an important role in transforming a species introduced into South Africa as a tree to be used for shade for livestock, shelterbelts, windbreaks and for fuelwood, into a major plantation species that contributes substantially to the South African Forestry and Forest Products sector. Today, black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) plantations make up approximately 7% of the South African plantation forestry estate and provide employment, directly and indirectly, to over 36 000 people.

The Wattle Research Institute was established in 1947 as a three-way partnership between wattle growers, government and the University of Natal. Both the wattle growers and government had identified a need for research into a tree species that showed great promise. Much of the early work carried out at the WRI was pioneering as the species was relatively unknown in the world at that time. Also, very little was known then about tree improvement and silviculture in plantations and this early work has been described as being “before its time”. By the 1960s the WRI was recognised as one of the foremost centres of silvicultural research in the world and until it broadened its focus in 1984, the WRI was the only research institute in the world dedicated solely to wattle research. Today, the Acacia research programme at the Institute for Commercial Forestry Research is strongly aligned to growers needs, providing improved germplasm from its breeding programme, silvicultural recommendations, and research into understanding and managing the constraints to productivity.

Although the area planted to black wattle reached its peak in the 1960s (approximately 300 000 ha) and subsequently declined to around 130 000 ha, the local and international demand for wattle bark products and wattle timber has cemented its place in South African forestry. The emergence of competitive markets for wattle timber and new wattle bark products has brought the need for new research initiatives to provide innovative, multi-disciplinary solutions. In South Africa, the land available for growing trees is finite with little expansion in the current plantation forestry estate envisaged. At the same time the demand for forest products is likely to continue to increase, the local and global forest products markets are becoming more discerning in terms of quality, and sound environmental management of the plantation forests is a prerequisite.

In this document we attempt to capture the knowledge that has been generated from research on black wattle that has been done at the WRI/ICFR and its sister organisations over the past fifty years. It also attempts to build on to previous publications like Sherry’s book on the black wattle. Although not a “how to” manual, this work shows the scientific evidence for the many recommendations that have emanated from the Institute over the past five decades. It also gives the reader a feel for the issues where we still lack a clear understanding of all the scientific evidence.

The ICFR acknowledges the foresight of the South African Wattle Growers’ Union who have recognised the importance of research and have continually supported wattle research at the WRI/ICFR. This is particularly evident since 1998 when SAWGU took control of the funding of wattle research. This publication is the product of more than fifty years of work and as such is the product of many researchers and technical staff who have been involved in, and who have contributed to, wattle research. The direct contribution from the authors who reviewed and summarised the current knowledge is gratefully acknowledged. A special thank you to everyone involved in peer reviewing and proof-reading the sections.