Almost any sheep farmer in this country will, at some stage, have wondered whether he was raising sheep or jackal. No matter what farmers do – hire varmint hunters, set traps, kraal the sheep – the jackals always seem to come out on top.
Richard Holmes, a fourth generation farmer in the Cradock area, thinks he may have stumbled across a solution, but it’s one that goes against every instinct.
Holmes has a 3 400 hectare game ranch near Cradock in the Karoo. When he still had 600 Dohne Merino ewes several years ago, he was losing 50 sheep a year to jackals. Like most farmers, he tried all the tricks, but the death toll stayed steady, and the jackals outwitted him at every turn.
In despair, he mentioned his problem to Dr Mircea Pfleiderer, an Austrian researcher studying small cats (African wildcats, caracals, servals and small spotted cats) in the area at the time.
She suggested a subversive step. What about introducing more caracals, also known as lynx, or rooikat, into the area? Holmes’ mind reeled as he pictured his neighbours’ response and even greater sheep losses.
Dr Pfleiderer explained that caracals and jackals are eternal foes, and will always pursue and kill one another, and each other’s young, wherever possible. In this way, they keep each other’s populations in check. The same is true of lions and hyenas – another cat and ‘dog’ kind of rivalry that goes back aeons. In fact, most predators will kill other carnivores if they get half a chance.
Richard felt he had nothing more to lose, so some caracals were brought in from other farms (they are very easy to trap because of their feline curiosity).
To his complete amazement, it worked. His losses plummeted from 50 to about 6 a year.
Holmes explains that you’ll typically find one caracal per 400 hectares, and a jackal per 1 000 hectares, so his predator population has balanced out at eight to ten caracal and four to six jackal at any one time.
Lynx Dung Deters Jackal
But Dr Pfleiderer’s work has changed their lives in more ways than one. She was also studying breeding small cats in captivity and had to return periodically to Germany. Holme’s wife Marion helped to take care of them while Pfleiderer was overseas, and became fascinated by them.
Now, apart from the sheep and fifteen game species, the Holmes are breeding African wildcats, servals and the more common caracal.
Marion cleans the faeces from the cages every two days. Richard has found a use for that too. If scattered around the sheep camps, it is a highly effective predator deterrent.
“I used to have a few lambs taken from the camps every year, but since I started using the cat dung, not one. In fact, I advertised caracal faeces for sale in the local newspaper, at R100 a kg. Only one guy called me, and he told me I was mad. Yet just think – I would be saving him thousands. He could do what we do and put it in the freezer – it still retains its smell when thawed.”
Richard says that since he confessed his unorthodox methods, several local farmers have come round to his way of thinking. “A few have tried our trick of trying to keep jackal and caracal populations in balance, and it seems to be working, especially if there are enough other wild animals for them to eat. In any case, the predators generally prefer rodents like springhares and small buck to sheep. They only seem to eat sheep when there is nothing else.”
Billions of Rands Lost
Professor Graham Kerley of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Centre for African Conservation Ecology concurred that caracals and jackals have a well-known antagonistic relationship.
This mostly involves competition over territorial use and predating on each other’s young.
“There are other ‘non-lethal effects’. The mere presence of new predator will affect the way animals use the landscape, in the same way that people might avoid certain areas that are prone to crime.
“There is an urgent need for serious, well-funded studies on the jackal issue that will take it beyond the ‘single-farmer anecdote’ stage. Over the past 300 years, the agricultural community has dealt with predators by trying to kill them, and as a result, lions, cheetahs and hyenas have been wiped out in farming areas. But billions of rands, literally, have been spent on trying to control jackals and so far there has been limited success.”
Richard and Marion have found that hunting and game farming generates more income per hectare than sheep farming, so they have decreased their sheep population dramatically. But they still use caracal faeces around the kraal, and it’s still successful in protecting the sheep from predators.
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