The Nilgiris in a Nutshell


The Nilgiri plateau was once covered entirely by a mosaic of shola forests and grasslands. In the 1800s, 'exotic' species were introduced to meet ornamental, firewoood, timber and industrial needs. Over the course of two centuries, exotic species like tea and plantation crops were often planted en masse, indiscriminately.

Introducing: Exotic Species
and the Problems


Large scale planting triggered certain more invasive varieties to spread into areas they had never been seen before, replacing large parts of a native grassland that overran 70% of the plateau. By 1988, over 11,000 hectares of grasslands were converted to plantations.

They now grow unchecked in many former shola forests and grasslands. At Upstream Ecology, we have an ongoing programme to remove exotic species that have invaded or taken over a piece of land.

In the past, we have worked on removing species such as Broom (Cytisus Scoparious.) To implement the Exotic Species removal programme, we partner with and are supported by organisations such as Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary and Vattakanal Conservation Trust (Kodaikanal.)

Projects

 

Nilgiri Sholas


While 70% of the Nilgiris were native grasslands, 30% of land were shola forests. The forests are also known as ‘cloud’ forests, holding the ability to draw moisture from the mist, and retain cloud cover. Over 98 shola tree species have been identified in the Nilgiris. At Upstream Ecology, one of our goals is to work towards recreating entire shola forest communities, and recreating these rare ‘cloud forests.’ Although they are making a slow comeback over their traditional habitat, regenerating Shola forests is challenging, while extremely beneficial to the biosphere. Several factors including soil conditions, topography and frost incidence must be taken into account. At Upstream Ecology, we study these factors to make appropriate interventions.

Tree Guards


Our shola tree guards are a tested tie up between native and exotic species. We use wattle (acacia mearnsii) stumps to make a frame, and an exotic species named Broom (cytisus scoparious) to create shade for the Shola.

These sources of shade protect the tree from frost, grazing animals and from drying up - thus ensuring their survival.

   
 

Shola Edge Niche


The team at Upstream Ecology is also working towards growing Shola Niche Edge varieties that are essential for biodiversity. The edge is very important in keeping a shola forest intact, and helping it act like cloud forest. It has a very high diversity of native species. More than 15 species of the rare Kurinji are found growing in this niche in different part of the plateau. Once we assess whether Sholas have previously thrived in an area, we can regenerate Shola forest lands.

Doddabetta Shola


One of the first projects started, where shola forest trees were planted out in a tea estate in the Doddabetta mountain. Doddabetta mountain, known as Pettmaarsh by the Toda indigenous people, is the second highest peak in India, south of the Himalayas. At over 2600m, it is the highest mountain in the Nilgiris. This entire mountain region would have once been a stunning shola-grassland mosaic. But sadly, much of it has now been destroyed. There are a few pocket sholas that remain, but grasslands are nearly extinct on these slopes. Our first shola planting project here began in a former tea estate.

Once the basal layer of native grasses are established, other native grassland shrubs and herbs can be introduced. The land, amounting to 50 acres belongs to Total Environment Pvt Limited, Bangalore. The project of restoring this land by trying to bring back as much native plant ecology as possible, is being worked on along with Botanical Services, Auroville. We began planting shola trees in 2013, and will ensure that almost all the 3000 trees planted grow well and establish quickly. The adjoining image shows Upstream Ecology conservation gardeners at the Total Environment site after a planting season where hundreds of tea bushes were removed and replaced by planting shola trees.

   
 
 
   

Why are Grasslands so important?


Today, only 7% of the original expanse of native grasslands remain in the Nilgiris. Grasslands are huge stores of carbon. They fix carbon rapidly in the soil. They help stop soil erosion and build the soil profile. There is more plant diversity (including endemic plants) in the grassland than even in shola-forests. Grasslands help absorb water, form perennial streams and grassland tracts act as fodder for herbivores.

     

How we plant


The first step in restoring a native grassland is to establish the basal layer of native tussock grasses. Here in the Nilgiri plateau, the soils which need restoration are a seed-bank of invasive exotic plants. The challenge is to use the composition of native grass, which can withstand these pressures and grow amongst them.

The adjoining image shows the spacing we use when planting native tussock grasses. This is how large native tussock grasses are typically planted - one in each of the squares. Smaller native tussock grasses are planted within a tighter spacing.

 
 

Lawrence School Project


The shola-grassland restoration project (shola project in short) aims at growing back the native ecology of this campus-watershed. The restoration works are being designed as programmes that students can implement and get involved with. The aim of the project is to be able to increase the space for native biodiversity in the campus, rebuild the hydrology of the watershed and aid in services such as soil building and conservation. A 3.5 acre patch of land was selected above the school's check-dam (the old orchard), for grassland restoration. On the 2nd of December, 2016, ground work to clear the site of its exotic invasive occupation commenced. The plants that were removed were: Cestrum aurantiacum (mainly), Cytisus scoparious (broom), Ulex Europaeus (Gorse), Solanum mauritinanum, Pennisetum clandestinium (Kikuyu Grass) and Ageratina adephora (Eupatorium).

 

Before and After


The project is being supported by the alumni of the Lawrence School, who are keen on bringing native grassland vegetation back to the campus. The batch of 1981, and Leap Green Energy Pvt Limited are key contributors to initiating the project

The entire watershed region encompassing Lawrence School and adjoining Reserve Forest areas is over 1500 acres. Grassland ecology is extinct in this entire expanse. Shola forests patches are also in very degraded states. Our intention is to work here in the long term with all the stake-holders to regenerate this watershed. Adjoining image is an example of the long-term plan in working with ecological restoration here.

               
 
 
  

Peaty Wetlands of the Nilgiris


The wetlands harbor peaty soils, which are filled with rich stores of carbon. A large clump of tussock grass here, can be several hundred years in age and capable of storing more carbon than an individual tree. Wetlands are like sponges. They store massive amounts of water, releasing them slowly throughout the year. These habitats are very endangered all over the plateau, so it is now crucial that wetland ecologies are restored.

 

Planting-Out


 Wetlands are also home to a wide array of rare and endemic plants. One of the plants, a native grass which is endemic to the Nilgiris, grows only in healthy wetlands. This grass, known as Erichrysis rangacharii, is extremely rare now. The Toda indigenous people need this grass to thatch their huts and temples. We work with growing several such rare wetland plants. We have begun planting works along with organisations such as Keystone Foundation, and will work with wetland restoration in many locations all over the Nilgiri plateau.

 
 

Restoring Perennial Streams


In a healthy shola-grassland mosaic watershed, regardless of the season, the rate of flow of water of a stream will remain more or less the same. The capacity to store water during the monsoonal seasons, and slowly release it at a steady rate, plays the primary role in keeping the major rivers that originate from here perennial. At our stream regeneration projects, we prepare the land, desilt the stream since streams are often clogged-up, and recreate the drainage patterns.

Planting-Out


After clearing the pathway of the stream, we plant plants like bamboo and ferns to keep the stream's path. Often, many of the original vegetation, such certain sedges, come back by themselves. Restoring stream-flow also involves planting native plants in the larger watershed region. We intend to take up more such projects in the Nilgiris and provide the services of mapping watersheds and conducting baseline surveys to understand ecological status.

 
 
   

The Upstream Ecology Nursery


Our nursery was set up in 2012 with assistance from Shola Trust, Gudalur. Currently we have a capacity to grow and plant nearly 15,000 plants a year. We grow both native shola forest ecology plants as well as the montane grassland plants of the Nilgiris. There are close to 75 species of plants that we conserve and propagate. These include tree species, shrubs, climbers, grasses and wetland plants. We also work closely with Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad, in programmes to rehabilate certain highly endangered species.

     

Native Tussock Grasses


This is the first nursery in the Nilgiris to be growing the endangered grassland vegetation. Grassland vegetation once covered nearly 70% of this plateau, and is crucial for soil binding, soil building and hydrology improvement. Grassland ecology is also important as a source of food for herbivore populations and as livelihood for pastoral communities. At our nursery we grow 14 species of native grass. Grassland restoration can happen relatively quickly. If planted-out in the right season and using the proper methods, the first basal layer of grasses can establish well within a year.

 

 
   

What are Invasive Species?


Certain non-native species behave in an invasive manner in some habitats. They multiple rapidly, displacing native biodiversity along the path and dominating large tracts of land. One such invasive species is black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) which is from Australia. This tree was brought into the Nilgiris for setting-up commercial forestry. It was extensively planted on the grasslands. Much of the plateau is now covered by these mono-crop plantations. Some of the last remaining grasslands are still under the threat of invasion from non-native species like back wattle. The adjoining image shows an example of wattle saplings invading grasslands. The image below it is after we uprooted saplings from that hill. This type of action is periodically required to check invasion and help preserve the last remaining grassland habitats.

 

Tackling Early Invasion in Grasslands Habitats


 There are several non-native species that behave in an invasive manner here in the Nilgiris. Pinus patula (Patula pine), Cytisus scoparious (Scotch broom) and Ulex europaeus (Gorse) are some of the other species that threaten the last remaining grassland habitats. Along with partner organisations such as Gurukula Botanical Sancturary and Vattakanal Conservation trust, we organise programmes where we carefully remove invasion into the grasslands. We adopt techniques of manual removal, where each species requiring specific tools and methods. Do get in touch with us if you wish to help support or participate in such programmes.

 

 

Projects

Cloud Forests

Nilgiri Sholas


 

While 70% of the Nilgiris were native grasslands, 30% of land were shola forests. The forests are also known as ‘cloud’ forests, holding the ability to draw moisture from the mist, and retain cloud cover. Over 98 shola tree species have been identified in the Nilgiris. At Upstream Ecology, one of our goals is to work towards recreating entire shola forest communities, and recreating these rare ‘cloud forests.’ Although they are making a slow comeback over their traditional habitat, regenerating Shola forests is challenging, while extremely beneficial to the biosphere. Several factors including soil conditions, topography and frost incidence must be taken into account. At Upstream Ecology, we study these factors to make appropriate interventions.


Tree Guards


Our shola tree guards are a tested tie up between native and exotic species. We use wattle (acacia mearnsii) stumps to make a frame, and an exotic species named Broom (cytisus scoparious) to create shade for the Shola.

These sources of shade protect the tree from frost, grazing animals and from drying up - thus ensuring their survival.



Shola Edge Niche

 


The team at Upstream Ecology is also working towards growing Shola Niche Edge varieties that are essential for biodiversity. The edge is very important in keeping a shola forest intact, and helping it act like cloud forest. It has a very high diversity of native species. More than 15 species of the rare Kurinji are found growing in this niche in different part of the plateau. Once we assess whether Sholas have previously thrived in an area, we can regenerate Shola forest lands.<


Doddabetta Shola



One of the first projects started, where shola forest trees were planted out in a tea estate in the Doddabetta mountain. Doddabetta mountain, known as Pettmaarsh by the Toda indigenous people, is the second highest peak in India, south of the Himalayas. At over 2600m, it is the highest mountain in the Nilgiris. This entire mountain region would have once been a stunning shola-grassland mosaic. But sadly, much of it has now been destroyed. There are a few pocket sholas that remain, but grasslands are nearly extinct on these slopes. Our first shola planting project here began in a former tea estate.

Once the basal layer of native grasses are established, other native grassland shrubs and herbs can be introduced. The land, amounting to 50 acres belongs to Total Environment Pvt Limited, Bangalore. The project of restoring this land by trying to bring back as much native plant ecology as possible, is being worked on along with Botanical Services, Auroville. We began planting shola trees in 2013, and will ensure that almost all the 3000 trees planted grow well and establish quickly. The adjoining image shows Upstream Ecology conservation gardeners at the Total Environment site after a planting season where hundreds of tea bushes were removed and replaced by planting shola trees.

   

Rolling Grasslands

Why are Grasslands so important?


Today, only 7% of the original expanse of native grasslands remain in the Nilgiris. Grasslands are huge stores of carbon. They fix carbon rapidly in the soil. They help stop soil erosion and build the soil profile. There is more plant diversity (including endemic plants) in the grassland than even in shola-forests. Grasslands help absorb water, form perennial streams and grassland tracts act as fodder for herbivores.



How we plant


The first step in restoring a native grassland is to establish the basal layer of native tussock grasses. Here in the Nilgiri plateau, the soils which need restoration are a seed-bank of invasive exotic plants. The challenge is to use the composition of native grass, which can withstand these pressures and grow amongst them.

The adjoining image shows the spacing we use when planting native tussock grasses. This is how large native tussock grasses are typically planted - one in each of the squares. Smaller native tussock grasses are planted within a tighter spacing.


Lawrence School Project


The shola-grassland restoration project (shola project in short) aims at growing back the native ecology of this campus-watershed. The restoration works are being designed as programmes that students can implement and get involved with. The aim of the project is to be able to increase the space for native biodiversity in the campus, rebuild the hydrology of the watershed and aid in services such as soil building and conservation. A 3.5 acre patch of land was selected above the school's check-dam (the old orchard), for grassland restoration. On the 2nd of December, 2016, ground work to clear the site of its exotic invasive occupation commenced. The plants that were removed were: Cestrum aurantiacum (mainly), Cytisus scoparious (broom), Ulex Europaeus (Gorse), Solanum mauritinanum, Pennisetum clandestinium (Kikuyu Grass) and Ageratina adephora (Eupatorium).



Before and After


The project is being supported by the alumni of the Lawrence School, who are keen on bringing native grassland vegetation back to the campus. The batch of 1981, and Leap Green Energy Pvt Limited are key contributors to initiating the project

The entire watershed region encompassing Lawrence School and adjoining Reserve Forest areas is over 1500 acres. Grassland ecology is extinct in this entire expanse. Shola forests patches are also in very degraded states. Our intention is to work here in the long term with all the stake-holders to regenerate this watershed. Adjoining image is an example of the long-term plan in working with ecological restoration here.

Streams and Wetlands

Peaty Wetlands of the Nilgiris


The wetlands harbor peaty soils, which are filled with rich stores of carbon. A large clump of tussock grass here, can be several hundred years in age and capable of storing more carbon than an individual tree. Wetlands are like sponges. They store massive amounts of water, releasing them slowly throughout the year. These habitats are very endangered all over the plateau, so it is now crucial that wetland ecologies are restored.



Planting-Out


 Wetlands are also home to a wide array of rare and endemic plants. One of the plants, a native grass which is endemic to the Nilgiris, grows only in healthy wetlands. This grass, known as Erichrysis rangacharii, is extremely rare now. The Toda indigenous people need this grass to thatch their huts and temples. We work with growing several such rare wetland plants. We have begun planting works along with organisations such as Keystone Foundation, and will work with wetland restoration in many locations all over the Nilgiri plateau.



Restoring Perennial Streams


In a healthy shola-grassland mosaic watershed, regardless of the season, the rate of flow of water of a stream will remain more or less the same. The capacity to store water during the monsoonal seasons, and slowly release it at a steady rate, plays the primary role in keeping the major rivers that originate from here perennial. At our stream regeneration projects, we prepare the land, desilt the stream since streams are often clogged-up, and recreate the drainage patterns.



Planting-Out


After clearing the pathway of the stream, we plant plants like bamboo and ferns to keep the stream's path. Often, many of the original vegetation, such certain sedges, come back by themselves. Restoring stream-flow also involves planting native plants in the larger watershed region. We intend to take up more such projects in the Nilgiris and provide the services of mapping watersheds and conducting baseline surveys to understand ecological status.

Native Plant Nursery

The Upstream Ecology Nursery


Our nursery was set up in 2012 with assistance from Shola Trust, Gudalur. Currently we have a capacity to grow and plant nearly 15,000 plants a year. We grow both native shola forest ecology plants as well as the montane grassland plants of the Nilgiris. There are close to 75 species of plants that we conserve and propagate. These include tree species, shrubs, climbers, grasses and wetland plants. We also work closely with Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad, in programmes to rehabilate certain highly endangered species.



Native Tussock Grasses


This is the first nursery in the Nilgiris to be growing the endangered grassland vegetation. Grassland vegetation once covered nearly 70% of this plateau, and is crucial for soil binding, soil building and hydrology improvement. Grassland ecology is also important as a source of food for herbivore populations and as livelihood for pastoral communities. At our nursery we grow 14 species of native grass. Grassland restoration can happen relatively quickly. If planted-out in the right season and using the proper methods, the first basal layer of grasses can establish well within a year.

Invasives

What are Invasive Species?


Certain non-native species behave in an invasive manner in some habitats. They multiple rapidly, displacing native biodiversity along the path and dominating large tracts of land. One such invasive species is black wattle (Acacia mearnsii) which is from Australia. This tree was brought into the Nilgiris for setting-up commercial forestry. It was extensively planted on the grasslands. Much of the plateau is now covered by these mono-crop plantations. Some of the last remaining grasslands are still under the threat of invasion from non-native species like back wattle. The adjoining image shows an example of wattle saplings invading grasslands. The image below it is after we uprooted saplings from that hill. This type of action is periodically required to check invasion and help preserve the last remaining grassland habitats.



Tackling Early Invasion in Grasslands Habitats


 There are several non-native species that behave in an invasive manner here in the Nilgiris. Pinus patula (Patula pine), Cytisus scoparious (Scotch broom) and Ulex europaeus (Gorse) are some of the other species that threaten the last remaining grassland habitats. Along with partner organisations such as Gurukula Botanical Sancturary and Vattakanal Conservation trust, we organise programmes where we carefully remove invasion into the grasslands. We adopt techniques of manual removal, where each species requiring specific tools and methods. Do get in touch with us if you wish to help support or participate in such programmes.

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