A Herd Act to Follow
Words Andrea Abbott, pics Andrea Abbott and Supplied
High on remote Dartmoor we find a pastoral scene: a herd of Nguni cattle, their coats of many patterns lending contrast to the green landscape. Bright-hued, newborn calves, secure in the 188-strong crowd, peep out uncertainly as we mingle with the bovine throng.
In their midst, big daddy Stallone, a muscular, wide-horned fellow with not just a chip but a hell of a bump on his shoulder, holds us in his disconcerting gaze. “He won’t charge, will he?” I ask Donna Lay, manager of Dartmoor which, in case you’re wondering, is not in England but is part of the 3 275ha Karkloof Nature Reserve in the KZN Midlands.
Stallone, I’m reassured, has a stare far worse than his charge. Still, Ngunis are known for extreme protectiveness of their young and for their herd loyalty. “It’s not easy to separate them,” Donna says. This is evident when herdsmen and mounted rangers join forces and attempt to isolate a calf that requires an injection.
In a trice, the one-for-all and all-for-one principle kicks in. Tightly packed, shoulder to shoulder, the herd morphs into an impenetrable wall of muscle that surges this way and that, all the while bellowing oaths at the perceived assailants. I feel as if I’m caught up in a Wild West movie. Eventually, calf is caught, muti administered, and he’s released to join the herd that, insulted, hotfoots it down the hill to other pastures.
Donna Lay, manager of Dartmoor Farm, with her all-important herd of cherished Ngunis.
Ngunis, South Africa’s indigenous breed of cattle, are very much the in thing these days, their colour patterns making them a popular subject for artists, writers, interior decorators and photographers. But the Dartmoor herd is about more than pretty faces and eye-catching coats. They’re a key part of the latest project by the Wildlands Conservation Trust, a KZN-based NGO that, in just a decade, has grown to become a major force in the national arena of biodiversity protection and community-based, poverty-alleviation programmes.
Their projects are many and varied and range from fitting rhinos with tracking devices to providing a platform for ‘tree-preneurs’ in impoverished communities to grow indigenous trees and trade them for goods such as food, building materials, bicycles, solar panels, and rainwater tanks.
The Dartmoor Nguni project falls within the organisation’s recently established Farming the Wild intervention, whose purpose is to develop viable businesses on conservation land in ways that help protect the ecological integrity of that land. In the case of the rich, biodiverse Dartmoor farm that Wildlands bought in 2010, to expand the Karkloof reserve.
“An important area of Midlands mistbelt grassland is protected there,” says Kevin McCann, the organisation’s deputy director of conservation SPACE (Species, People and Conservation of the Environment). “This grassland type has lost 80 per cent of its original extent in other areas of the province. Those irreplaceable grasslands aside, Dartmoor is also important as a water-catchment area. It lies in the upper catchments of two provincially strategic river systems, the uMngeni and uThukela. Both have a large number of downstream users, including the major urban centres of Hillcrest, Pinetown and Durban.”
Now that the veld at Dartmoor is improving, Wattled Cranes are returning to the area.
Other significant environmental assets are extensive wetland areas and a variety of threatened species. These include the endangered oribi antelope and Wattled Crane, and some increasingly rare wild flowers, among them Watsonia canaliculata, Dierama luteoalbidum and Cryptocarya myrtifolia.
As happens in nature, all these various elements are interconnected, and without one another might vanish. This is where the Ngunis come in. Their role is not so much to generate income (although they do that too), but to perform the vital ecological function of keeping the grasslands intact. Cattle as conservation tools might seem a far-fetched idea, but it’s not unheard of. “It’s the first time Wildlands is using cattle in this way,” Kevin says, “but the project is not unique to Dartmoor. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife and SANParks have in the past explored and used cattle in protected areas as a conservation-management tool. ”
The idea pivots on the fact that regular grazing keeps grasslands in good shape. At Dartmoor, a key grass species is the highly palatable (when young) red grass, Themeda triandra, which is one of the most important grazing grasses in Southern Africa. As a decreaser grass it’s abundant in good veld but decreases when the veld is under- or overgrazed.
“When we began managing Dartmoor three years ago,” Donna says, “our focus was on removing countless snares, including gin traps, and stamping out illegal dog hunting – factors that had virtually decimated the oribi population as well as other grazers.” Too few oribi and other antelope meant the red grass was not being utilised properly. This created a vicious cycle: ungrazed, the grass continued to grow while decreasing in palatability, to ultimately become moribund and thus lost.
Then, because of the accrued mass of combustible material, the risk of hazardous runaway fires increased significantly. In fact, late in 2014, on the eve of the arrival of the Ngunis, a massive fire swept through Dartmoor and neighbouring farms, destroying about 1 500 hectares of veld.
I’d heard of the intensive grazing, no-burn approach that claims to perform wonders such as prevent desertification, and capture carbon and store it in grassland soils for thousands of years. But I’d also heard opposing views, for example that such claims are unfounded and also that the trampling impact of mobs of heavy-hoofed cattle is detrimental to soils, water storage and plant productivity. Controlled burning, the latter camp argues, is the way to go.
Donna explains that managed burns will be done at Dartmoor, but that the Ngunis play a complementary role. A smaller breed than most other cattle, they’re lighter on the land and, being indigenous, are well adapted to the conditions. “They’re hardy, economical, resistant to tick-borne diseases, and easier to manage than other breeds,” Donna points out.
Another benefit is that regular grazing, in keeping the grass short, helps with controlled block burns, and therefore fire management. Essentially, then, the Ngunis are taking on the role of the oribi and other grazers that once occurred in healthy numbers on these mistbelt grasslands. And so, a link in the ecological chain has been more or less restored. Still, how tragic that the true connection has been severed, those dainty antelope almost wiped out, and other naturally occurring species also in decline.
But the story promises a happy ending. The Ngunis may be standing in for the oribi for now but, as the veld improves, habitats will begin to recover, beckoning once more the cranes (all three species – blue, grey crowned, and wattle – occur in the area) and other grassland dwellers, including the special flora. The snaring problem, now also under control thanks to the efforts of Donna and her hand-picked team, means that the once hunted – the oribi, reedbuck and other gentle grazers – can also start to return (already, there are indications of an increase in numbers) and, when they do, they’ll find abundant grazing and, along with the Ngunis, will play their rightful part in protecting the biodiversity of the Midlands mistbelt grasslands. One for all, and all for one.
Source: Country Life