The Nature of Farming – the hidden predator in small stock deaths.

20130731_164956The pair of Verreaux’s Eagles descended down the slope, darks shadows dropping over the cliff and hugging the steep rocky fynbos. Silently they landed at the base of a rock and in a flash disappeared from view as they merged into the dappled landscape. Moments later, the female flapped up onto the rock, a shimmering shadow against the white table mountain quartzite.
Amanda and I were watching from a vantage point on a farm near Uniondale in the Eastern Cape, 30 Km north of the Garden Route. We were in the process of conducting a 6 day bird survey for a proposed wind farm and had been performing a vantage point survey for 3 hours when the eagles arrived. It was our second session of three hours at the specific vantage point. The day before, during the first survey session we had observed a flock of sheep, approximately 200 ewes on an alfalfa pasture, giving birth.

The disturbing fact was that during the first session we had observed no less than 4 dead ewes, three dead new born lambs and four orphaned lambs. Our concern for the orphaned lambs had compelled us to phone the famer and notify him of the deaths and the impending deaths if the flock was left unassisted over the course of the next few days. He assured us that his manager was on his way to assess the situation.

Feeling that we had done a service to prevent any additional ewes and lambs dying, we relocated to our next scheduled survey location which happened to overlook the alfalfa pasture. Sadly, during the next three hours no manager or farmer arrived to inspect the flock of lambing ewes despite the farm office being a mere 12 minute drive from the location.

The following morning, when we arrived, we were not surprised to discover additional dead ewes and approximately 10 more dead new born lambs. Over the following three hours we observed a pair of African Fish Eagles and a juvenile Martial Eagle scavenge from two of the carcasses. We even managed to record the Martial Eagle feeding continuously for 75 minutes before taking a 40 break and again feeding on a carcass.

When the pair of Verreaux’s Eagles flew in it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that we watched them land close to the pasture. Excitement because, we would have the privilege of seeing these apex avian predators feeding. Trepidation, because should a farmer see what would unfold, their immediate deduction would be of predation by the eagles and their inevitable preparation to destroy the perceived vermin.

Like a stealth bomber the female swooped down into the pasture and snatched up a lamb carcass in one fluid graceful motion. The extra weight proved too much even for this avian huntress and she soon dropped to the ground. For the next 3 minutes she hopped along the ground and dragged the lamb in one talon to the perimeter fence. Resting briefly, she drew on all her resources and cleared the low fence before dragging the lamb to the shade of a bush where the male joined her to feed.

The tragedy of what we had witnessed was twofold. First and foremost, the lack of appropriate shepherding of a flock of ewes while giving birth had resulted in a very high mortality rate, a final tally of 16 lambs. It was obvious that the ewes had all been hormonally synchronised for simultaneous lambing and it is unfathomable why the farmer or a manger did not continue this management practice by being present during the lambing period of three days.

The second disconcerting thing was that two years previously I had had a discussion with a farmer from the Kareedouw district who described how a Verreaux’s Eagles had hunted a lamb in his pasture, carried it over the fence and fed on it in the veld. He had not witnessed the death of the lamb or the suspected bird, but had found the remains of the lamb carcass on the other side of the fence and concluded that the only predator capable of lifting the lamb over the fence was a Verreaux’s Eagle. This circumstantial evidence was sufficient for him to destroy the pair of Verreaux’s Eagles on his property. This was a farmer that only checked on his flock of sheep personally once a month. A farmer than wouldn’t consider that his lax management resulted in him not witnessing or testing for the true cause of death of the lamb. Finding the scavenged carcass days after the fact, the only exercise he had done was jumping to a conclusion which most probably was incorrect. An unnecessary death for both the lamb and the pair of eagles. Again, the true killer was poor management.

This is by no means the only mistaken cause of death of livestock that we have witnessed on farms. In the past three years we have spent no less than 20 days per month doing bird survey work on farms in the Northern Cape, Western Cape, and Eastern Cape. On each and every farm that we have worked on we have seen livestock die, almost on a weekly basis.

In the Roggeveld, near Sutherland, we have witnessed starving sheep attempting to break through fences fortified with chicken wire in an attempt to get to a water trough. A few days later we witnessed a carcass of a sheep suspended over the same fence were it got trapped while trying to jump over. What we did not see on the single jeep track to the location were any vehicle tracks other than our own, an indication that the farmer had not been up to check on his livestock in 5 days. Yet nightly, he and a neighbour went out to hunt the perceived vermin of caracul and jackal that supposedly killed his livestock. I wondered if he expended the same amount of time and money on monitoring his flock of sheep as he spent on hunting jackal and caracul, whether his production would show a significant increase. I suspect that his losses would surely diminish with even a farm inspection once a fortnight.

Vantage Point Survey for Three Hours.

Vantage Point Survey for Three Hours.

On a farm in the Overberg near Swellendam, for three days we watched 10 sheep staggering around in circles and were not surprised to find them all dead one morning. When the farm labour eventually found the dead sheep, one hind quarter had been scavenged by a small predator. Within hours the farmer had formulated a plan of extermination. Again, it is with amazement that during the collective period of 32 days (four sessions of 8 days) during the year we only saw the farmer present with his flock during a brief 4 day shearing. Never did we observe him in the lands taking stock of the health of his flock.

Again, on a farm near Mosselbay, over a six day period we watched sheep and lambs die and bloat in the field. On the third day African Fish Eagles and Jackal Buzzards started scavenging on the carcasses. Yet not once did a farmer enter the field to check on the remaining ewes or the carcasses. I can only imagine that when the remains were finally discovered a few expletives were uttered and the closest scapegoat of jackal and caracul were hunted to compensate for the lack of professional management. Yet again poor management stalked through a flock of sheep with lethal consequences.

To be honest, no business is without loss. Restaurants budget for losses through wastage. Grocery stores budget for losses. Recent studies conducted for a Ph.D thesis on the comparative losses between lethal and non-lethal small predator management practices on small livestock farms in the Karoo revealed a mean loss of a mere 11.7%. Loss budgeting in the fruit and veg section of a grocery store allows for nearly double this value inclusive of the cold chain from market to store. Add sell by dates to what is on the shelves and any store manager would love to achieve a loss rate of less than 12%.

What was counter intuitive in the three year Ph.D study on 11 farms was that in the two years after lethal management of small predators was replaced by non-lethal management methods, losses reduced to less than half of the period with lethal management. Losses reduced to an inconsequential mean of 3.2%. That’s correct, no hunting, trapping and poisoning of jackal and caracul and losses actually decreased.

Near Cookhouse, on two farms that we worked on, again we saw sheep struggling to survive in anything but perfect conditions of poor veld management and dry water troughs. In the Great Karoo, water is essential for healthy livestock production, especially during the hot dry summer period at altitude. Even more so during lambing season. Again, during a collective period of 40 day (four seasons of 10 days), the only sheep that we saw getting professionally managed was a small percentage being ‘rounded off’ on irrigated pastures before being sent to market. A small percentage of the entire flock, somewhat akin to a broker worrying about 50% of his clients share portfolio and not scrutinising the value of the other 50% of the portfolio.

On both the Cookhouse farms, both farmers were busy. Busy maintaining a pack of hunting dogs. Busy repairing traps. Busy planning where to place poisoned bait for predators. Busy in November preparing for shearing season for the December wool market. Yet never busy walking through the veld on a weekly basis checking up on the condition of the veld and the health of the sheep. In contrast their neighbour did a weekly horse ride around his lands. He knew were the eagle nested, where the jackals denned, were the Steenbok and Kudu had been for the week. His sheep were healthy. We never saw dead sheep on his farm. Poor management did not slink cross his farm.
One farmer allowed concession hunting on his property and knew that the condition of the wild roaming Kudu were better than the previous year, when during a drought period the Kudu were too weak even to jump over the fences and died starved and weakened. As an indicator species on the farm, the condition of Kudu are a direct barometer of the carrying capacity of the veld. Indeed, if a small population of indigenous browsers could not survive on the veld, then a large flock of focused grazers would definitely suffer. Where there are weak and unhealthy animals in nature, predators manage the system, selecting out the weak and injured animals so only the strong genes remain in the herd or flock.

Further south near the coast on the western border of Addo Elephant National Park we met Mr Grace, a mixed farmer with dairy and sheep and the odd goat. We arrived on his farm just before dawn and were counting a flock of Denham’s Bustards accompanied by a chorus of jackals when a milk truck pulled up. The driver switched the engine off and leaned out of his cab asking if we had heard the Jackals calling. Over the past three years we have grown wary of relating what wildlife we have seen on the farms we work on. Our first enthusiastic account of a Jackal sighting in the Karoo had been rewarded with a dried pelt hanging in the shed on our return trip. Cautiously we bent the truth saying that we had not seen any, but would keep an eye out.

Two days later we met Mr Grace, the proud owner of a flock of free roaming Springbok in addition to his livestock. Evidently they had arrived on his farm about 12 years beforehand, a fugitive flock of 5 Springbok comprising 4 ewes and one ram. He also related that his packs of jackal had increased during the same period and in his estimation, killed about 60% of the springbok herd every year. Quickly I figured out the compound growth of 40% per year from 4 ewes discounting the rare event of twins and reached a figure of about 170 Springbok. The flock was at about 200 so there must have been a few twins and the jackals must have missed a few lambs along the way. Impressive growth either way.

It got me thinking about the business of farming and losses. Or rather, farming and growth. Speak to any businessman and ask if he would be happy with 40% growth per annum. Review the JSE and see if you can find any listed business that has sustained 40% annual growth for the past 12 years. Any unmanaged business that is! The answer : None, zip, nada!

What if a livestock farmer viewed his losses in from a different perspective and looked instead at the growth of his herd or flock. A meagre loss of 11% per annum can be translated into a whopping growth of 89% per annum. Know of any business out there that can achieve that? Over twenty years? I doubt it. In fact the big problem that a farmer would be facing with that sort of annual growth rate would be insufficient land for grazing. Even with an annual take-off of 50% to be sent to market, growth would exceed most businesses.

Consider a hypothetical case of an original flock of 1000 ewes and factor in an annual lambing rate of 0.95. Factor in 10% loss of lambs and a take-off of 75% sent to market in the first 3 years and increased to 90% sent to market from the fourth year. In 10 years your flock will be 2,925 ewes and you would be sending just over 2,250 lambs and 250 ewes to market per annum. Throughout this growth your major headache would not be the jackals, but rather securing sufficient food for your flock. Indeed, your jackals and caracul, whose population would have stabilised after 3 to 5 years, would perform a major function of culling out weak, diseased and poor performing sheep unsuitable for either breeding or the market.

Further growth of the flock would be achieved through managing the flock to increase the lambing rate to between 1.0 and 1.1 and reducing the pre natal and post natal losses to below 10%. By merely increasing lambing rate to 1.0 the flock will increase to 3,082 with 2,500 lambs and 280 ewes sent to market per year.

Having watched farming practices for more than three years in a variety of districts, there is sadly one common factor in small livestock farming that we have observed. Namely, and most importantly is that all the sheep fatalities we have witnessed, without exception, each one have been as a result of a ‘lack’ of shepherding skills and management. Indeed all feeding by predators observed has been on carcasses of sheep which we have witnessed dying either from natural or pathological causes. Returning to the business analogy, a store owner that abandons sound management practice and does not check on stock levels, shelf life and store maintenance on a daily schedule will suffer greater losses than any shoplifting would inflict on their balance sheet.

I would strongly advocate that future farming should strive to enhanced management particularly by confirming pregnancy and greater care and attention during lambing and the post natal period. This alone would serve to greatly reduce stock losses in any ranching practice.
On the management of small predators, diligently manage a healthy small prey species on the ranch and allow territorial predators to establish their ranges and predation of stock will drastically decrease. By closely observing the condition of the small herbivores you will receive an accurate of account of the condition of the veld and grazing for your livestock.

View the first article in this series of three here : The Nature of Farming

About the author : Mark Dixon studied a B. Sc in livestock science at Pretoria University and a M.Sc in Aquaculture at Rhodes University and has farmed Protea’s for export in the Garden Route. He has conducted research on Toothfish fisheries in the Ross Sea, Antarctica, and been a field assistant in the Pantanal, Brazil, investigating the real impact of Jaguar predation on cattle farms. Business and personal travel have allowed him to visit numerous nature reserves and farms around the world to investigate the ecological models and their impacts and implication in modern farming methods. A staunch advocate of Biomimicry, he attempts to encourage farmers to employ the ecological services of nature to reduce farming costs and maintain sustainability while reducing disease on small scale and extensive farms. He currently consults as an Avifaunal Specialist conducting pre and post construction surveys on wind farms in South Africa. In addition he owns and manages a guiding business focusing on environmental education.

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6 responses to “The Nature of Farming – the hidden predator in small stock deaths.

    • Thanks Andy, it is a topic that needs both farmer and consumer awareness. I also feel it is important for farmers, particularly in Africa, to consider how to incorporate the condition of nature in extensive husbandry management as expressed in another article : http://wp.me/p2dQrm-2X

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