62. Shepherds of the Karoo (04/2013)

by brettthevet

The oldest vocation in the history of agriculture is ready for a modern revival. Farmers have proven over the centuries that human presence in the form of a shepherd is the only truly effective way of safekeeping their vulnerable domestic animals whilst continuing to live in harmony with nature.

The ‘Shepherds of the Karoo’ project will provide a specialized flock and veld management service to sheep farmers. Shepherds will also be trained as field guides.

The main benefit for the farmer will be significant economic gain due to reduced lamb losses from predation, theft, and sickness or injury. ‘The constant observer’ will also monitor and potentially improve other aspects of flock health and veld restoration. Flock focused protection has the spin-off advantage of stabilizing local wild animal populations. Consequently there will be greater potential for agri-tourism.

The economy of our region has shifted from agriculture to tourism. It makes sense for farmers to capitalise creatively on this trend. Visitors who want to encounter the great Karoo outdoors could stay on farms where they will learn about integrated farm management and gain insight into the ecology of Karoo plants and animals. Guests will spend one or more nights out in the veld with their shepherd guide, and would require basic accommodation, and food. Individual farmers will be able to tailor details of this aspect to create a unique farm experience. The income generated would contribute to shepherds’ salaries. All it requires is marketing.

Practically, the shepherds will work in shifts, staying with the sheep day and night accompanied by a working sheepdog. Sheep will be kraaled in a mobile structure constructed from solar powered electrical fencing. An easily moveable base camp will ensure that veld damage from trampling is limited. By implementing planned grazing patterns as part of a holistic management (see http://www.savoryinstitute.com) program, the flock could then be guided to the most suitable terrain. 

Shepherds will belong to a guild or co-op and become individual service providers to the farmer. This support structure will stimulate pride in their shepherding career, ensure a greater sense of responsibility, and provide access to resources. Selected candidates will receive training pertinent to the shepherding profession in animal husbandry, emergency medicine, basic veld management, first aid, and field guiding.There will also be opportunities to pursue further vocational training in order to develop skills in areas of special interest. Farmers will be supporting a progressive human development initiative.

The rewards of a highly marketable ‘product’ that is ‘ecofriendly’, ‘free-range’, ‘fairtrade’, and ‘certified organic’ are far reaching and could further elevate ‘karoo lamb’ status to meet the increasing tendancy of consumer demand for ethically produced food.

In light of the renewed move to ‘Treasure the Karoo’ since the threat of fracking, many people recognise the Nama Karoo Biome as one of the last remaining untouched biodiversity hotspots on the planet. As a matter of urgency everyone who lives here should join the global trend to participate in collective action to protect and nurture our natural heritage. As custodians of this pristine land farmers are able to pioneer innovative measures, leading the way together with Nature Conservation in keeping the balance between preserving our unique plant and animal life while maintaining food security.