By Julienne du Toit
Pictures by Chris MaraisBack in the 1950s, botanist John Acocks was traipsing tirelessly over South Africa, writing copious notes on veld types in his exquisite copperplate.
He gloomily predicted that desertification would expand and that by 2053, the Karoo would be lapping up against the outskirts of Pretoria.
Acocks may yet be proved wrong on that count, but he was right about the reckless overstocking of sheep, cattle and even ostriches in the Karoo.
By the early 1930s, much damage had been done because of the diamond and gold prospectors streaming north through the Karoo and because of ostrich farming. If confined, ostriches can pick a piece of land completely clean.
Then the overstocking of sheep reached something of a fever-pitch in the mid-1950s, when the Korean war and freezing American soldiers spurred a massive wool boom. Acocks, who was witness to this excess, despaired for the future of the veld.
In the 1960s, government stepped in with a compulsory stock reduction scheme. Farmers were actually paid NOT to graze animals, and to some extent it worked.
Overgrazing and Allan Savory
But it didn’t help Dougie Stern.
In 1978, he came back to his family farm Rietpoort outside Graaff-Reinet after working on a farm near Koffiefontein and as a Jackaroo in Australia.
He and his new wife Liz took a good hard look at the land, 2 600 hectares of hilly Karoo.
“We could see we just weren’t going to make it. Everything was so dry, and there wasn’t nearly enough in the veld for the sheep to eat. We were forced to truck feed in.
“I knew that if we were going to survive, we had to find a different way of farming. Something more holistic.”
That’s when Dougie stumbled across the work of Allan Savory, a former Zimbabwean game ranger who observed how the veld deteriorated after thousands of wild animals were killed in a futile effort to reduce tsetse fly.
He concluded that plants need animals to prune them down. Plants cannot survive without animals.
Savory said overgrazing was a function of time, not number of animals. What the veld needed was to have brief, intense grazing on it, and then many months of recovery, he said.
All Flesh is Grass
The idea was appealing, and it resonated with many, perhaps because it seemed to echo the scenario in the land before European farmers arrived with their fences and livestock.
Massive springbok migrations with millions of animals would irregularly sweep across the Karoo until the last recorded one in 1896. Some even say a single migration would have contained many more wild animals than all the sheep alive on Karoo farms today.
The theory is that the buck, following rain and fresh forage, traveled mostly bunched together by predators. They would eat almost anything green before them – there was no time or space to pick and choose the most palatable bits.
All the while they would be were churning up the crusted soil with their sharp little hooves, and depositing their dung on the waiting seeds. Then they would move on, leaving the plants to recover and grow again over several years.
The veld thrived on this rough treatment. But things started going backwards when animals were penned on the same land, year in and year out, with no respite.
Walter Murray, now semi-retired from his game, cattle and sheep farm north of Graaff-Reinet, Bloemhof, says that in his grandfather’s day, most farmers just had three camps, one for ewes, one for rams, one for hummels (castrated males).
“One farmer I knew would swap them around once a year so they’d have a change of scenery!”
In fact, he recalls, the old farmers actively disliked grass.
“A friend of mine told me that as soon as the grass came up after spring rains, the farmers in his father’s day would bring in a trainful of sheep to get rid of it. They didn’t want grass to smother the bushes.
“The grass was mostly steekgras, a pioneer that grew where soil had been degraded. And their thinking is valid to some extent. If there’s a drought, it’s the Karoo bossies that pull you through.”
But now grass has become a magnificent obsession.
It is grass that has pulled Dougie and Liz back from the brink.
“It made sense to me, seeing overgrazing as a function of time,” said Dougie. “Animals must be given the first bite of a plant and then moved off before they go back for a ‘second bite’. It’s the second bite that compromises the plants’ ability to thrive.
“We run our Dohne Merinos with Tuli cattle on 80 paddocks. Depending on the vegetation, leave them in a paddock for three to five days, then allow the paddock to recover for 120 to 150 days.
“You’ll think I’m lying. But when we came here, there wasn’t a blade of grass here. Maybe just a strand of steekgras here and there. Now look at how thick the grass cover is, how many palatable shrubs. And the rain sinks in to the soil, so we have more underground water too.”
There are other progressive methods of livestock farming in the Karoo. South of Graaff-Reinet, close to the settlement of Kendrew, you’ll find Chris and Rachel Hobson’s gracious old farm, Roodeberg.
Rachel has her doctorate in botany, and Chris his Honours. They farm Tuli cattle, sheep (including the tougher, indigenous Damara that are used by the ovaHimba), and Boer goats.
Chris has great respect and reverence for Karoo bossies, their nutrition values and their stoic survival skills.
“If you manage only for grass you may miss out on the opportunity to promote some highly valuable shrubs like vygies. Some just want grass, but I wonder whether it’s natural to be pushing the veld all the time to produce grass? I’m happy with a mix. Truth be told, I’m managing for biodiversity. I want to cover my bases, especially with climate change coming.”
On the wall in the old house is a most revealing photograph of the farm taken in 1886, nine years after Kimberley’s diamond rush started and the same year gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand. Below it is a photograph of exactly the same place taken in 1986.
You immediately see that in a century, the veld cover has increased dramatically.
A road which led along the valley floor then was already an eroded donga. The same donga is now thick with Acacia karroo trees, halfway to some kind of recovery.
Some experts say the Great Trek HAD to happen, because the veld had been so badly damaged that livestock farmers were left with no choice but to move north.
Chris allows his animals to stay on the veld longer than Dougie – two or three weeks, under normal circumstances, rather than a few days. But he gives the veld nine months complete rest – with the Karoo’s unpredictable rainfall, that’s the time it needs to recover, he maintains.
Diamonds and the Damage Done
Much of the damage happened long before the Wool Boom of the 1950s.
“The diamond rush in Kimberley back in the late 1800s really messed up our vlei with all the wagons and livestock going through. It still hasn’t recovered,” said Walter Murray.
“The veld was also heavily overstocked in the late 1800s, right through to the 1920s and 1930s,” adds Walter. “During the Second World War, the government took away rifles from the farmers and they weren’t allowed to shoot the springbok. So that caused the veld to go down even more.
“Then again, unlimited rest is not the answer either. Animals can damage or restore the veld.”
The Eastern Cape Karoo has seen much: springbok migrations, invasions of locusts, crows, prickly pears, infestations of harpuisbos and renosterbos.
But thanks to some enlightened farming methods and a growing understanding of the veld, things are improving. Correct livestock and veld management has proven to be a great tool for recovery. Even wild animals, which can overgraze the veld if not moved, can be useful. On Bloemhof the eland have eaten the besembos (another unwelcome plant) and the springbok have eaten the bitter karoo.
“We’ve got to hand our land back to the next generation in a better state than we received it,” says Dougie Stern. “After all, we are only the custodians of the land.”