Notes from the Field: Sheep Tagging in South Africa

Tagging sheep and goats in South Africa
Although the people of South Africa’s Namaqualand region have raised domestic herds for millennia, herding has recently become a more difficult livelihood. Overgrazing has led to significant land degradation, a problem which will only get worse if the effects of climate change – such as increased temperatures and more frequent drought – come to pass.

Thanks to Conservation International’s Conservation Stewards Programme, CI-South Africa’s new Biodiversity and Red Meat Initiative (BRMI) is now working with local farmers to reduce herd size and restore degraded territories, prolonging the life of the land in the process. In August, 16 farmers in the Leliefontein region agreed to join forces with the BRMI. The first task? Counting and tagging all of their animals, so as to begin monitoring herd size. Malinda Gardiner, CI-South Africa’s Conservation Stewardship Coordinator, describes the experience.

“As exciting as it was, signing our new stewards up as proud members of the BRMI was only the beginning. This is the first project of its kind in South Africa, which means that the Namaqualand team is entering a year of learning together with the farmers what will work best. Today was our first taste of what this really means.

Today we went to Leliefontein to count sheep and goat stock, and to mark the animals. This might not sound like much to you, but the odds were decidedly stacked against us.

Sheep and South AfricaFirst, we didn’t know whether we would actually have to catch the animals ourselves. If you have never caught a sheep or goat before, you might not understand this concern. But to enlighten you, just because goats and sheep are domestic doesn’t mean they want to be caught – quite the opposite, in fact.

Take a sturdy 35 kilogram lump of sheep. [That’s about 77 pounds. –Ed.] You have to catch it by the hind leg, just above the hock, and squeeze it to partially disable the tendon, because a sheep kicks like a mule. As the sheep tries to dislocate your shoulder with a kick, it is also straining to get away from you, using its whole weight to drag you around. A goat is a different matter. Its horns can be a help in one way, as you can catch it by the horns, but they are sharp and can also cause damage.

Secondly, we were not sure that we would be able to count the sheep accurately. We tried herding them into a corner of the kraal and letting through a few at a time, counting as they went by. But they don’t obligingly run in a line so you can count them – they bundle up or try to get out. Try to imagine a 30 kilogram [about 66 pounds.–Ed.] woolly missile racing right at you.

Thirdly, we had a brand new marking clipper and bright earclips to go with it, but Anneke was the only one who was given rudimentary instructions – on a piece of cardboard – by the Kaap Agri salesperson on how to use the clipper.

The goat/sheep has to be marked on the ear. To get the clip into the ear, you have to pierce it, just like piercing a human ear for earrings.

Lucky for us, we had Jansen van Wyk with us, representing BRMI’s partner organization Nammeat. Without him, we might very well have emerged from this exercise with inaccurate stock numbers and mangled fingers, not to mention mangled goat ears. The farmers’ wisdom also helped save the day.

South Africa in flowerTwo of the BRMI members and all the other hands in the yard were enthusiastically catching sheep and goats and lining them up. Jansen graciously offered to operate the earclipper, so Elmariza handed Jansen the clips, Jansen clipped, and Anneke and I were armed with spray cans of Supona, which heals wounds and prevents infections while killing ticks. Amongst other ingredients, Supona contains purple stuff. Very purple.

Anneke’s face went a few shades paler as the first clip was inserted and her spontaneous exclamation of “shamepies!” in sympathy with the goat’s bleat was met with much mirth by the rugged men all around us. But it all went well and soon we were working like old hands.

Then we realized that tomorrow we wouldn’t have Jansen with us – we will have to do the earclipping ourselves. So if we don’t try it now, while he is around to show us, we won’t know how to do it tomorrow.

It was a bad moment. As the Supona sprayer, you are in a sort of caregiving role. You nurse, you heal – even if the stuff burns like hell. But as the clipper, you are there, giving that goat an earring it doesn’t want.CI staff helping local farmers tag their stock in South Africa

But it had to be done, I was first and yes, the bloody clipper got stuck – luckily only briefly. Anneke got it right the first time and now, in true CI fashion, Elmariza was in there, with a bottle of Supona in her hand and her camera slung nonchalantly over her shoulder, spraying away.

There we were, wading knee-deep in sheep and goats, supplying clips, clipping, spraying, getting sweaty and eventually, with our last herd, getting rained on, with goats and sheep careening all around us. What a day!

Eventually we had to stop – it was raining hard and getting dark, but we counted and clipped 280 stock today. After a slick and muddy retreat down the pass, we thawed in the warmth of the heater, the smell of sheep manure stuck beneath our boots gently perfuming the air around us, our hands and faces stained purple and at least two of us with bruises inflicted by goat horns – tired, but happy.

Take a look at our pictures and tell me – were our feet in the mud today, or what?”

Malinda Gardiner is the Conservation Farm Manager for CI-South Africa

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