Shepherding back our biodiversity
South Africa’s agricultural sector is responsible for devastating impacts on the environment.
Most South African farms are privately owned, commercial operations, a fact that has somewhat naturally led to a one-dimensional approach to management: they’re out to make a profit. Many of these farmers leave their livestock to graze unattended in large camps, sometimes for months at a time. While the costs are low to the farmers, this system – known as paddocking – has significant negative impacts on the health of South Africa’s land, especially in arid areas.
The vegetation is put under stress, as the animals graze only the most palatable plants and leave no time for it to recover. This results in large areas of exposed soil, which leads to soil erosion and increased run-off after rainfall. Paddocking also leaves livestock vulnerable to predators, as predator-proofing fences is expensive. Moreover, livestock health is frequently compromised by the lack of human attendance, making them easy targets for predators.
To counter such threats, many South African farmers use traps or poisons, or actively hunt down predators with rifles or packs of dogs. Such practices have negative impacts on the entire trophic pyramid, a fact that is increasingly attracting the concern of ecologists and environmentalists around the world.
While it is easy from an outsider’s perspective to condemn an image of a proud farmer with a dead lion at his feet, we must remember that these farmers can lose as much as half their annual income at the jaws of predators.
After centuries of using lethal predator controls, farming communities are the first to admit that the problem of livestock losses and predation has only worsened, yet they have not reassessed or changed their approach. The lack of research and information on various predator control options available to farmers is perpetuating a broken system. This need not be so.
This complex set of issues gave rise to the Landmark Foundation’s Shepherding Back Biodiversity project, which aims to mainstream biodiversity conservation on agriculturally productive landscapes while simultaneously increasing their production, security and resilience.
Using shepherds is one of the wildlife-friendly livestock farming methods the project is trying to promote.
The project covers some 50,000 hectares. Target areas and demonstration farms are chosen in regions that contain areas of recognized biological importance, or are in existing private conservation areas, or protected areas.
Funded by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) and run in partnership with UN Environment, the four-year project began in July 2016, and is hosted by the philanthropist owner of Kromelboog farm near Beaufort West in Western Cape Province.
The pilot operation on the farm combines farming methods of the past with modern technology. It uses temporary and portable kraals, or livestock enclosures, which are paired with trained human shepherds.
The magic of the method lies in the shepherds. More than mere guardsmen, they are experts in their craft, guiding livestock to appropriate grazing sites and moving them to new pastures when the time is right. They are trained to monitor the condition of the most palatable plants, avoid overgrazing and degradation of the natural vegetation, and provide the land with appropriate rest and recovery.
When an area has been optimally grazed, the kraal is disassembled and moved to the next area, allowing farmers to do away with patchwork camps altogether. The removal of camp fences is one of the obvious environmental gains for the ecosystem, as it allows the natural re-establishment of ecosystem corridors and faunal migrations within the farm. Predators thus move back to their traditional food sources and the system restores itself.
The project is being carefully monitored. After a year under the new system, Kromelboog farm has experienced zero livestock losses to predation and has seen obvious positive changes in the conditions of the soil and vegetation.
In an equivalent period prior to the introduction of non-lethal human shepherding, the farm experienced 96 individual losses to predation. The number of lambs born increased from a 70 per cent birth rate under the previous management system to a 109 per cent birth rate, which is believed to be a result of better husbandry under the shepherding system.
There are benefits for humans too. The project creates stable and better paid jobs for rural workers, allowing them to learn a skilled trade and enjoy long-term employment as expert herders. Herder wages are 68 per cent above average farm labourer pay. These herders take the skills with them and employ them in their current and future positions in the agricultural sector. All herders received 10 days of in-field training and a full year of mentoring.
The Landmark Foundation has developed a herding training centre and continues to encourage an interdisciplinary space for open-source academic learning. The Foundation is also in the process of building a payment-for-ecosystems service in the form of an ethically produced products brand, Fair Game. The pilot project will soon be rolled out.
For more information, contact Bool Smuts: firstname.lastname@example.org or Jane.Nimpamya@un.org.
This story was originally published by UN Environment.
Story by Bool Smuts, environmental manager, medical doctor and director of the Landmark Foundation in South Africa.