Blocking off the ‘Thieves’ Highway’

Effective stock theft solutions are almost always the product of trial and error, plus dollops of community diplomacy.

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Such is the case in the Bergville/Winterton area in the KwaZulu-Natal Lowlands, where a 28km alarmed fence alongside the main district road has reduced annual reported stock losses from between 250 to 300 to fewer than 40. According to local farmer Cobus Botha, who spearheaded the initiative, the first alarmed fence along the notorious R74 between Bergville and Estcourt, which local farmers call the ‘Thieves’ Highway’, was installed in 2008.

“The private enterprise I’m involved with installed an electric fence system in 2009 on a farm where we had lost 30 of our own cattle that year. Although the fence was cut six times in two months, we recovered all the cattle in hours, thanks to the quick response times,” he said. Within a short time, stock thieves began to turn their attention to less well-protected areas.
“We were forced to extend the fence,” said Botha, “And 30 neighbouring farmers agreed that the ‘Thieves’ Highway’ should be fenced off. Unfortunately only 16 farmers paid, so the full strategy was not implemented.”

A total of 28km of road frontage was fenced, and 2,8km of this, in the more remote areas, was reinforced with cable. The fence was provided and installed by Drakensberg Gate & Fence, a Winterton-based company. “The fence starts at Winterton and ends near Bergville, creating a boundary between farmland and certain Sappi forests in which the thieves hide the cattle until they can move them higher up into the mountains,” said Botha.

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The fence is split into seven alarmed sections, which helps two local security firms to patrol and respond more efficiently.
“The fence has really lightened the load on our farm watch. And the stock theft figures in other areas have not risen noticeably,” said Glynn Trodd, chairman of the Bergville Farmers’ Association. The system is not perfect.

“We still need to check the alarm systems regularly to ensure they are working, which is tedious, and we’ve also found that thieves have taken cattle through farm gates without disturbing the fence,” said Botha. Farmers are currently installing cattle grid gates to plug these gaps, and a second phase of fencing, to run almost the entire length of the R74 from Bergville to Winterton, is envisaged.

This first phase of the project cost R330 000, broken down as follows:
Callouts and repairs: R41 900.
Fire damage: R4 600.
Cable fence covering inaccessible areas: R59 700.
Spraying of sponsored herbicides: R13 800.
The balance – R210 000 – was for the fence itself.