Guardians of the Karoo Rangelands

By Julienne du Toit

Photographs by Chris Marais

Think Prairies. Think Steppes. Think Australian Outback. Think Great Plains, Pampas, Grasslands and Savannah. Think Karoo and Kalahari. In other words, consider all the places that South Africans might conceivably call veld.

These are the rangelands of the world, covering more than half the Earth’s dry surface. This is where livestock, farms and people intersect with wild places and creatures. These are areas that are critically important in terms of food security, biodiversity, carbon capture and water storage.

According to the Agricultural Research Council, rangelands cover around 70% of South Africa’s surface, and are essential for producing affordable food. The ARC’s Rangeland Ecologist, Dr Igshaan Samuels, reports that South Africa’s veld is forage for 13 million cattle, 20 million sheep, 2 million goats and at least 40 species of game animals.

Holistic Management or Regenerative agriculture helps revitalise soils, capture carbon, increase food security and store water.

Karoo Bucks the Trend

As with the rest of the world, South Africa’s rangelands have been degrading, eroding, quietly unravelling as topsoils wash away and grasses thin out. The experts call it desertification. For decades, it was thought to be a process that could not easily be reversed.

But there are a few areas in the world bucking the trend, and one of them is in the Karoo. Regenerative land management seems to have sunk its first and strongest roots in Southern Africa, more specifically, in a few dozen farms around Graaff-Reinet.

Here, bare earth that was once crusted and impenetrable to seed and water is steadily being covered with vegetation, the soil soft, carbon-rich and moist. Climax grasses that haven’t been seen in decades are popping up, along with vleis and springs of good clear water.

All this in the midst of the worst drought in living memory.

Graaff-Reinet is also where the world’s first Herding Academy was founded in 2018.

This rise in regenerative land management began in the 1950 and 1960s. Two men were to play a major role in this revolutionary agricultural ethos, one from Zimbabwe, and the other a son of the Karoo.

Too many animals left on veld for too long a time left it impoverished and heading towards desertification, said Acocks.

Understocked and Overgrazed

John Acocks was born in Middelburg, Eastern Cape, in 1911. After completing his Masters in botanical studies, he began work for the Department of Agriculture, doing veld surveys across the entire country. In 1953, he published his best-known book, The Veld Types of South Africa.

While striding across the countryside, literally and intellectually outpacing his research assistants, Acocks worried more and more about the loss of perennial, climax grasses, particularly in his home turf of the Karoo. He saw how sheep returned again and again to palatable plants, grazing them repeatedly until their rootstock was damaged and they died.

Back then, the academic wisdom was that veld quality would decline every year, and there was nothing anyone could really do about it. In the wetter parts of the world, like Europe, allowing the land to lie fallow and ungrazed would heal it. That didn’t seem to work in the drier, more brittle areas like the Karoo and Kalahari.

By the 1960s, Acocks had come to the conclusion that South Africa was “understocked and overgrazed”.  This ran completely counter to the conventional conclusions that veld degradation was caused by overstocking.

Overgrazing was a function of time, not numbers, he said. Leaving a few animals on the veld over a long period of time meant they just kept returning to the palatable plants and slowly degraded the biodiversity of the veld.

Yet there was once a time when millions of animals roamed the Karoo. How did the veld sustain them?

The Karoo was once the scene of unimaginably large springbok migrations.

The Springbok Solution

Springbok were once synonymous with the Karoo. Until 1896, massive springbok migrations used to move through from the southern Kalahari into the Karoo at erratic intervals, following rain and fresh forage. In their wake, they would leave the veld crushed and devastated, covered in hoofprints, dung and urine. In the following rainy seasons, the bossies and grass would bounce back dramatically.

To mimic these vast herds of wild animals, Acocks supported putting large numbers of livestock on a piece of land for days rather than weeks, months or years. While fertilising the veld on a grand scale, they would keep moving and would eat nearly every plant, palatable and unpalatable. Then they would be moved off to allow the earth to repair itself.

Acocks coined the term Non-Selective Grazing for this method of rebooting the veld. He said it would stabilise the soil, bring back climax grasses and palatable shrubs, and restore the health of the groundwater system.

“NSG is simply Nature’s method of grazing,” Acocks stated in 1966.

The first rule of regenerative agriculture is to make sure the soil is covered.

Rebooting the Veld

Meanwhile, Allan Savory was a young biologist in what was then Northern Rhodesia, working on conservation and the creation of national parks in the 1950s. Seeing the condition of veld deteriorating, he was part of a team that concluded that the presence of too many animals was to blame. As a result, around 40 000 elephants were culled over a number of years.

In a 2013 TEDTalk, seen by more than 7.5 million viewers, Savory confessed that this decision was the saddest and greatest blunder of his life.

The condition of the veld, he said, “got worse, not better. But one good thing came out of it. It made me absolutely determined to devote my life to finding solutions”.

What he came up with was a theory he called Holistic Management, or as he saw it, a way to reverse the desertification and land degradation that affects two thirds of the planet’s landmass, to absorb carbon and reverse climate change, to store groundwater in arid regions, to restore the earth while at the same time securing food supplies and generating fair incomes.

The spellbound audience present at the TEDTalk gave him a standing ovation. The method he proposed?

“The only option was to do the unthinkable, to use livestock, bunched and moving as a proxy for the former wild herds and predators, and mimic Nature.”

As Savory, Acocks and others would prove time and again, putting livestock put onto degraded land at high densities for a short amount of time (typically three to eight days) can transform it with startlingly rapidity. Within weeks of subjecting the earth to this intense high consumption, high fertilisation and trampling, the seeds and bossies start to grow, especially if there are good rains. The trampled crust is softened and transformed. Flattened plants act as mulch and seedling nurseries.

Livestock can ruin the land. But with the right grazing regimes, they can also dramatically improve it.

It is no accident that the bacteria in the soil (which are critical to its health) are related to the bacteria in the guts of grazing animals. The roots trap carbon in the subterranean levels of the earth and provide pathways to absorb water. Even if those grass roots die in a year or two, their prolific root system containing all the carbon remains underground where it can do the most good, removed from the atmosphere.

The only Herding Academy in the world, just outside Graaff-Reinet.

Rooted in the Karoo

Acocks became a friend and mentor to Paul McCabe of St Olives farm, north of Graaff-Reinet, off the Murraysburg road. Oom Paul was a legend around Graaff-Reinet until his death in 2017. His farm is now the home of the holistic regenerative training hub, The Herding Academy.

The land McCabe had inherited was damaged, with enormous bald stretches of hardened earth and many erosion dongas. He made it his life’s work to repair it.

He implemented the Acocks system and was staggered to see how well it worked. In an interview with Landbou Weekblad magazine in 2015, McCabe said one of the incredible benefits was the rising of the water table.

“We used to drill down to 100 metres to get water. Now it is mostly only six metres below the surface. Acocks predicted that would happen. He also said the old dried-up wetlands would return, and they have. Vleis are incredible natural sponges that store water until it is needed.”

Both Acocks and Savory would go on to influence the thinking of many farmers around Graaff-Reinet, long before the latter went overseas to America and formed the Holistic Management Institute. Regenerative Agriculture has been rooted for several generations in the Karoo, while other areas in the world are only starting now.

Among the first farmers to use Savory’s Holistic Management on their farms in South Africa in general, and the Karoo in particular, were brothers Sholto and Rolie Kroon.

Sholto Kroon, on Klipdrift farm, part of the Camdeboo Conservancy.

Savory and the Kroons

Their parents, Malcolm and Wendy Kroon, had become firm friends with Allan Savory while Savory was still in what was then Northern Rhodesia, and the Kroons were farming in South West Africa, now Namibia.

In the 1970s, Malcolm and Wendy left Namibia to take over a family farm called Klipdrift in the Karoo’s Camdeboo Conservancy, south-west of Graaff-Reinet. This would become the first ‘regenerative farm’ in the Karoo.

On Klipdrift was a huge strip of land that was in particularly bad condition, riven by great dongas and huge bare patches.

“My dad couldn’t drive on it at all,” says Sholto. “We could barely traverse the dongas on foot. But now the veld has flattened and it is ‘vlei-ing’,” he says. Vlei-ing?

He explains: “We are managing to catch the seeds, retain the soil and water, and the dongas have filled up. The bare patches are steadily disappearing. We have watervleis (small wetlands) popping up everywhere.”

In some places, at the base of a fence, he can point at an old fence post poking up, barely shin-high, nearly covered by new topsoil. The new fence is atop a full metre of newly settled soil.

Angora goats, on their way to be shorn on Klipdrift farm.

Sholto, who farms with sheep, Angora goats and cattle, is elated at the return of the topsoil, and creatures like moles. They aerate the earth, he says.

“We also have a Masters student looking tiny micro-organisms like springtails in the soils.”

In 1990, Sholto’s brother Rolie took over Excelsior Farm north of Graaff-Reinet, just under the imposing Nardou mountain in the Voor-Sneeuberg. It is part of a critically important catchment where both the Great Fish and the Sundays Rivers rise.

“It was June and my mom dropped me off here leaving me with a tractor and a horse for transport. Excelsior is 5 400 hectares. It had seven camps, no pipelines, 50% of it mountainlands, no roads. The windmills were so ancient they were literally made of wood.

“I did all my work on horseback. The house had no running water and the veld was shot.”

Rolie Kroon, among the first regenerative farmers in the Karoo.

A Solar Farmer

Like Sholto, Rolie used Savory’s methods of small camps, intensive grazing and then long periods of recovery – at least a rainy season. He takes us to a valley that was once bare and exposed, the soil hard. Now a herd of cows grazes contentedly, surrounded by thick grass, near a small dam of water that is gin-clear. A watchful frog floats just above the vlei grass in the trough.

“About ten years ago, if we had as little as 10 or 20mm of rain, it would run off and form washaways and floods. If you leave soil bare, more than 87% of the water runs off. You have to stop a raindrop where it falls. If it moves, it takes soil with it.”

Now the land is thickly covered in a luxuriant cover of grass and dwarf shrubs.

“My children and I came out here recently and counted all the different species in an area we could span with our arms. Each of us identified around 18 species each.”

The unusual sight of clear water, vlei grass and a frog in a livestock watering trough on Excelsior.

The water flows slowly underground through the best filter in the world – healthy soil. It emerges at a poplar grove-lined dam near the farmstead, completely translucent.

Rolie refers to himself as a solar farmer.

“I harvest the sun via the grass and cows and make money from it. We get sun, plants and rain for free. Each plant is a spaza shop, absorbing carbons that feed the microbes. The more microbes, the more humus, the happier everything is.”

Rolie is now one of the instructors at the Herding Academy on St Olives Farm, which has become something of a showcase for veld restoration.

The Herding Academy

St Olives plays an important part in this story.

Rolie Kroon, Masters student at NMU Sarah Cromhout, and Johan Bouwer at St Olives Farm, with Professor the bull mastiff. Sarah is doing her thesis on the short-term (six month) effect of high densities of sheep on the vegetation composition, landscape functioning and soil properties of the Nama Karoo

Johan Bouwer, also mentored by Oom Paul, bought St Olives Farm and starting the Herding Academy there after McCabe’s death in 2017. Johan’s vision was to mimic natural migrations by using domestic livestock within a wildlife reserve. This was a first in South Africa.

The Academy also offers the only accredited Herding course in the world.

It teaches young livestock handlers and farmworkers from all over Africa how to reinvigorate and heal the veld using cattle or sheep. Along with the Tracker Academy, the Herding Academy falls under the SA College for Tourism (SACT). All three training institutions are supported by the Peace Parks Foundation. The Herding Academy course is also backed by Conservation South Africa.

The herders are taught animal husbandry, how to work according to a grazing plan, learning the practice and theory of holistic veld management over several months.

Bunching animals and moving them across the veld, confining them at night with movable gates and fences has become a way of using Holistic Management (or Non-Selective Grazing), conveniently without the expense of fencing and watering dozens of small paddocks.

More recently, the Herding Academy has begun to offer short courses, including a five day Executive Regenerative Land Management Course. They have proven to be extremely popular.

“This is one of the most exciting and mind-challenging experiences any land-owner, manager, conservationist or decision-maker will experience,” says Johan. “It is changing the way we think about land management forever.”

The Camdeboo Conservancy, south-west of Graaff-Reinet.

Holistic Management spreads

Trenly Spence of Kriegerskraal, also part of the Camdeboo Conservancy, started farming after his father became sick in the late 1980s. He had been studying horticulture in Cape Town.

“The veld was my passion. I had to learn my job fast, so I went around to see which farms looked the best. One of them belonged to my neighbour, Norman Kroon, Malcolm’s brother.

“I’d always felt as if there was something missing in our understanding of the veld and livestock. When Norman explained that overgrazing was a function of time, not the number of animals, this lightbulb went on in my head. Finally it made sense. I wanted to tell everyone.”

Trenly Spence of Kriegerskraal Farm.

Trenly set about using Holistic Management principles to regenerate the grazing on his farm for his Nguni cattle. When he started, the carrying capacity was one large livestock unit for every 28 hectares. Now thanks to the work he had done on the veld, it is around one for every 8 hectares.

Dave Stern is in the process of taking over farming from his father Doug Stern at Rietpoort, down the road from St Olives.

“Thanks to all the work my dad did to restore the veld using Holistic Management (HM), we have been given this massive gift: a fountain popped up two years ago, in the middle of the drought, and has been flowing constantly ever since. We were able to install a weir and use the water to grow lucerne for ewes and lambs.”

He bends down to pick up a cowpat, turns it upside down to show how it is riddled with holes – dung beetles have been industriously burying this nutrient-rich stuff underground.

“We can’t do without these guys, or the bees or the ants.  That’s why we don’t spray against locusts. A massive swarm covered all the bossies here. But look what they left us,” he says, showing us the locust frass, which looks like pale wheat grains, thinly covering the earth.

Dave Stern has seen the long-term benefits of Holistic Management.

“When locusts come, we work it into our plan, and we are responsive. HM gives us the tools we can use to implement decisions.”

Dave is also elated about the climax grasses that have emerged after the generous rains that fell at the beginning of 2021.

“We were on the brink of organising feed for our livestock. Then the rains fell and these top-class grasses sprang up: Digitaria, Panicum maximum, blue buffalo grass – plants that haven’t been seen here for decades.”

Carbon Credits

Rolie sees immense potential in carbon credits for good rangeland management.

“It stands to reason that if we ensure that our plants are healthy and numerous we will be able to create greater mass of life via growing plants, which will in turn enable the land to support more animals (above and below ground), which will enable the land to hold more water and store more carbon, without relying on addictive inputs to falsely underpin the mechanics of food production.

Carbon credits are a potentially lucrative reward for farming with nature, says Rolie Kroon.

“Well-managed grasslands will optimise the use of available rain and sunlight, and in so doing will sequester millions of tons of carbon. Savory said in his TEDTalk that if all grass farmers increased their soil organic matter by just 1%, global CO2 levels will revert to pre-industrial levels.”

The other, more common way of ‘rebooting the veld’ is by burning it to get rid of moribund, woody vegetation. But Rolie points out that this leaves bare earth. The vegetation then changes to fire-dependent species, encouraging unpalatable grasses like suurpol, and worse still, “one hectare of grassland fire releases more climate changing gases than 6 000 cars. According to Allan Savory, we burn over a billion hectares a year in Africa.”

He later sends a link to an article about an Australian farmer who is being paid lucrative carbon credits by Microsoft for sequestering 40 000 tonnes using these very methods of responsible rangeland management: “time-controlled rotational grazing, increased stocking density and decreased paddock size”.

Woolly Beasts on a High Plateau

Oom Paul McCabe also mentored James Brodie on nearby Doornplaats, on the road between Graaff-Reinet and Murraysburg.

He takes us to a high grassy plateau where we glimpse 2 000 sheep and a dozen Alpacas grazing in the distance.

“I could bring them closer,” offers James helpfully. He and his three-legged kelpie dog Emma head off at a brisk walk, leaving us to admire the Camdeboo Conservancy valley on one side, and the purple mountainscapes leading to distant Graaff-Reinet on the other.

Within minutes, the sheep hove into view, tightly bunched as a woollen carpet. In the middle are the slightly disconcerted alpacas, their heads swivelling atop long woolly necks to keep an eye on Emma as she runs from side to side behind the flock, guided by whistles and commands from James.

James Brodie and three-legged dog Emma of Doornplaats Farm, herding 2000 sheep and a dozen alpacas.

We follow in the flock’s wake, the humus and vegetation thick under our boots. James bends to pick up sheep droppings, and shows it to us with every evidence of pride.

“What we’re looking for here is good moisture and consistency in the dung, which means their digestion is good. Gut or rumen health is critical. This paddock is around 20 hectares. They’ll be here for a total of three days and then we’ll move them to the next camp. We’ll leave this one to recover for another 362 days.

“What we try to achieve is to graze with as many animals as possible for as short a period of time followed by as long a recovery period as possible.  This allows us to benefit from maximum animal impact followed by a long period of recovery.   We use a grazing chart to plan the grazing and it is our way of attempting to mimic nature.  One of the spin-off benefits of frequent paddock moves is that it also helps break the parasite life cycle.”

Using Holistic Management principles – and more than 50km of pipelines for stockwater – James is now able to operate at higher stock densities allowing much greater animal impact than historically when stock water supply was often a limiting factor.

“The long-term benefits being seen are a positive grass species succession, improved ground cover and associated improvement in overall carrying capacity,” he says.

James Brodie, with the Camdeboo Conservancy behind him.

Farmers Make the Difference

Derek Light of the Graaff-Reinet Economic Development Forum.

“We are extremely lucky to have these forward-thinking and community-minded farmers around Graaff-Reinet,” says Johan Bouwer. “They benefit the town in so many different ways – from the food parcels they quietly organised during the drought and COVID-19 lockdown, to the region’s food security.

“There is immeasurable value in having farmers who are highly productive and who also safeguard critical resources like water and soil.”

His views are echoed by Derek Light, head of the Graaff-Reinet Economic Development Forum.

“Karoo towns, in particular economic hubs like Cradock and Graaff-Reinet, are largely dependent on the agricultural industry to be sustainable. Agriculture is the biggest industry in the Karoo and makes a meaningful contribution to food security in the country, supplying over 50% of South Africa’s red meat, a large percentage of the country’s wool and is also the world’s largest mohair producer.

“The CSIR did a Strategic Environmental Assessment on the Karoo in the last five years, and found that farming in the Karoo employs up to 100 000 people, and sustains a further one million.

“For these industries to be sustainable, responsible farming practices are essential, particularly in a brittle environment like the Karoo.”

14 thoughts on “Guardians of the Karoo Rangelands

  1. Chris says:

    THANK YOU !
    Apart from being very interesting and informative , an uplifting “good” story , when in the rest of the country all we read about is crime , grime , and despondency.
    May we continue to see a wider and permanent retreat of desertification in all of the Karoo.

  2. Alex Hill says:

    Very interesting and encouraging story. I read this while the Blues-Highlanders game was on! In years gone by perhaps not a typical article I might have read. This is of such importance, even for a city-dweller. Recently, I got the Wild Karoo book, and just this week Karooveld, to study this topic. Looking forward to my next EC Karoo visit!

  3. GLEN JACKSON says:

    This really is good news to which we are unaccustomed to these days . I salute all these farmers and wish them a fantastic recovered Karoo very soon .

  4. Philicus Olivier says:

    Another fascinating and informative contribution Chris and Julienne, thank you! These days, the emphasis on responsible, innovative and sustainable farming is increasing tenfold. What’s more is that these innovators and visionaries hold the future of Holistic Management Principles and all related to it in their very hands as the way forward to rekindling a very needy rural economy and its dependents – in particular pertaining to food security. Sharing such valuable information and weaving it into such an interesting story is what makes Karoospace what it is.

  5. Maeder OSLER says:

    Yes, inspiring stuff. I can vouch for such farm practices in the karoo – plus translating the beneficial results over more than 30 years into millions of extra rand in asset building of responsive farm workers through the synergies of their modest cattle ownership: for a start!

  6. Diane says:

    So interesting – nature can teach us so much, unfortunately we are too often focused on money and forget to stop and learn. Thank you to those who have taken the effort to learn and pass it on.

  7. Jackie Gant says:

    Fascinating article that every livestock farmer should read and it should be taught in agricultural schools, colleges and universities. There is huge pressure being placed on natural fibre industries to ensure sustainability and regenerative land practices. I admire these chaps for being the trailblazers in our Karoo. Thank you!
    Brilliant article and images x

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  9. Andrew McNaughton says:

    Great summary of veld management since the seventies when John Acocks first shook the pasture scientists and the farmers around Graaff Reinet with a. prediction of the ‘desert’ reaching Bloemfontein by 2050.
    (See ‘Veld Types of SA’ by John Acocks and ‘Back to Earth’ by James Clarke)
    In 2004 Professor Hoffmann then at UCT told me that the vegetal cover in the Eastern Karoo had doubled over the previous 30 years and farmers had reversed desertification – something almost unheard of anywhere in the world.
    All credit then to these farmers and to Chris and Julienne Marais for their many contributions in support of the Karoo in general.

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