Two years ago, father and son team Gawie and Charles Schreuder were considering leaving Pendoringkraal, their 200-year-old family farm situated high in the Kamiesberg Mountains of Namaqualand, South Africa. As sheep farmers they just couldn’t continue a profitable farming operation while losing 60% of their livestock to predators.
When I first met the Schreuder family in 2008, I was welcomed into their warm, cosy kitchen to discuss Conservation South Africa’s Biodiversity and Red Meat Initiative. I remember Gawie saying, “I love this farm, and I’ll do anything to be able to stay here, but right now I just do not see a way out.”
As a sheep farmer’s daughter, I knew exactly how he felt. My own father was an eco-conscious farmer who under-utilized his land in order to avoid degrading it. This was back in the 1980s, before the benefits of modern technology; as a result, he eventually lost his farm. The Schreuders are no different from my dad; they have the same emotional attachment to the land that goes far beyond making money.
To assess the scale of the problem, I did some research and came across some data that makes for depressing reading.
According to a recent study, predation of sheep and goats by medium-sized predators costs R1.3 billion (more than US$ 146 million) per year, with the Northern Cape Province — where the Schreuder farm is located — accounting for more than 42% of these losses. This number is only the direct cost of predation; it does not take into account the additional cost of predator control. When I read these numbers, my sympathies only strengthened for the Schreuder family; losing 60% of their stock means losing 60% of their income.
In an attempt to keep predators like the black-backed jackal, leopard and caracal away from their livestock, some farmers shoot predators to protect their animals. The Schreuders used to set lethal gin traps. The indiscriminate traps resulted in mass graves of harmless animals like black eagles, tortoises and hares.
Charles’ distress was clear: “I loathe using gin traps. I’m sick and tired of having to kill animals. I’ve always felt that there is room on this farm for all creatures, but with the mess we are in, we have no choice.”
Conservation South Africa (CSA) and Charles worked long and hard to find a solution — and find one we did. After a few visits, Charles and his family signed a conservation stewardship agreement with CSA, agreeing to try new methods of dissuading predators.
As part of the agreement, the Schreuders agreed to stop all lethal predator control and were supplied with protective collars for their sheep. These steel collars prevent feline predators like caracals from biting sheep by the throat, which is their method for killing prey. These collars were tested during the lambing season, when predator activity was at its highest. As part of our commitment to this experiment, CSA compensated Charles for livestock losses to predators over the test period.
The results were immediate. During that first season, the Schreuders’ losses were reduced by two-thirds. Gawie is an avid inventor, and when the steel collars were found to be hurting the animals, Gawie didn’t let this stop him. Instead, he holed himself up in his workshop and emerged with an improved version that no longer caused discomfort to his stock.
In addition to these collars, Charles and his father also tested a radio collar that emits an ultrasonic sound when the animal is in distress. This sound is unpleasant to the predator but inaudible to the stock.
These two types of livestock collars have turned everything around for the Schreuders. In Charles’ words, “We went from losing R50,000 per year and having only 40% of our lamb harvest to sell to now taking 80% of our lambs to market. Our neighbouring farmers used to laugh at us for fitting these collars to the sheep, but these days we are the ones who are laughing — all the way to the bank. When I come across leopard spoor these days, it’s a good feeling to know I’m doing my part for biodiversity conservation while still running our family business.”
In 2012, Charles and Gawie Schreuder led the way in their community by formally committing their farm to a binding conservation agreement with the Northern Cape Department of Environment. This agreement — also signed by neighbouring farms — has formally created a new 11,000-hectare (27,000-acre) conservation area that will protect many plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth.
Malinda Gardiner is the communications coordinator for Conservation South Africa’s Namaqualand Green Economy Demonstration.