Barbary sheep: farming potential?

The much-maligned and hunted Barbary sheep may have a niche commercial value when farmed sustainably in a well-managed confined production environment. Shane Brody investigates.

Barbary sheep: farming potential?
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The Barbary sheep (Ammotragus lervia) is a caprid (goat-antelope) species endemic to the arid mountain areas of North Africa. Formerly abundant throughout Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, it is the only wild sheep species indigenous to Africa. It has been listed as vulnerable in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red Data Book, though in South Africa this status does not seem to be of much concern to biodiversity policymakers, and some farmers who believe that it competes for their livestock’s food supply.

With an IUCN global population estimate of barely 5 000 to 10 000 animals, conservationists are concerned that the Barbary sheep population will come increasingly under pressure due to habitat destruction, hunting, and endemic social strife in many parts of its natural range. Competition from livestock and growing feral camel populations have been cited as specific threats to the future of wild Barbary sheep in North Africa.

In South Africa, local breeders with permits for Barbary sheep suspect that the SA Barbary sheep population, estimated at between a few hundred to just over 1 000, are derived from zoo animals. Feral Barbary sheep in South Africa are mostly found in the Eastern Cape, Northern Cape and Free State where their ownership, breeding, movement and sale are strictly regulated by the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (No. 10 of 2004).Amongst breeders in these areas are Brian Edwards, who farms with game on his mountainous farm in the Queenstown district, and Andries de Klerk, who farms in the Free State.

Stocking rate

There are too few large breeding enterprises to ascertain a reliable stocking rate. However, breeders suspect that it could surpass that of domestic sheep. This is particularly so in densely vegetated areas, as Barbary sheep graze and browse whereas most sheep breeds favour grass. Barbary sheep ewes are good mothers and twins are not uncommon.

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The animal’s gestation period of about 160 days is the same as that of domesticated sheep. The conception rate is high on Brian’s farm, with most lambs surviving to adulthood. Brian stresses the fact that these hardy, no- nonsense animals enjoy some disease immunity, such as resistance to tick-borne diseases.

“I think their resistance to ectoparasites is directly linked to browsing strongly aromatic plants such as khaki bush (Tagetes minuta),” he says. “They are highly adaptable and will browse species such as harpuisbos. The predominant species in the Eastern Cape is Euryops floribundus and khaki bush, which are unpalatable to livestock. They seem to do well in environmentally degraded areas and are in fact assisting me to eradicate the harpuisbos, a curse I inherited when I bought the farm.”

The spread of harpuisbos – linked to the overgrazing of palatable grasses while this invasive species is never browsed – has affected livestock and game. It has become a major problem on many farms in the district as well as on communal farming areas in the former Transkei and Ciskei homelands, where it has rendered vast tracts of land useless for farming, and contributed to poverty in these areas.

Brian owns about 40 Barbary sheep. He says that the prejudice against Barbary sheep in South Africa is unwarranted considering the numerous other species that can equally be regarded as exotic or environmentally destructive – and that consequently its true economic value has been overlooked.

“They leave the good grasses and love to browse on young harpuisbos plants. They are prolific and good meat producers. As an added bonus, they are sought after by some trophy hunters who are prepared to pay up to R35 000 to hunt a trophy ram,” says Brian. He has observed and photographed Barbary sheep browsing harpuisbos on his farm while ignoring good grasses.

With its shaggy coat and large curved horns, even a young ram is an imposing animal.

Andries de Klerk reports that the Barbary sheep on his farm tend to favour higher ground which his livestock seldom utilise for grazing. While Brian supports monitoring and controlling the proliferation of alien species in biodiversity hotspots with fragile vegetation such as Cape fynbos, he stresses that in areas such as the former Transkei, environmental policymakers and government departments should consider commercial Barbary sheep farming as a solution to ongoing environmental and socio-economic problems.

However, Andries, who does not have harpuisbos on his farm, has not been able to observe his Barbary sheep browsing the weed, and is more circumspect on this point. He recommends that more research be carried out on Barbary sheep farming in low-risk areas confined by high fences.

Barbary sheep have the ability to produce metabolic water from the vegetation they eat and can therefore survive extended periods without drinking water. It is thought by some that Barbary sheep could interbreed with domestic goats and sheep, but this is highly unlikely from a biological and scientific point of view and the progeny will in any case be less viable.

“The fact that it is declining in its original range is proof that it’s vulnerable to human impact,” Brian stresses. “Where Barbary sheep were introduced into areas such as the Eastern Cape’s Tsolwana Game Reserve 30 years ago, they haven’t spread. In fact, hunting there has reduced the population almost to the point of total eradication. Irrespective of its prolific breeding, a confined Barbary sheep population can be managed effectively by culling.”

The introduction of Barbary sheep may have become a threat to some areas of the US where they apparently compete with indigenous species such as mule deer and bighorn sheep for food. This is not so in South Africa, where in contrast, harpuisbos infestation in some parts of the country has dramatically reduced indigenous game numbers, explains Brian.

Easy to control
“Would it be problematic to introduce Barbary sheep into these largely barren areas?” asks Brian. “The simple manner in which they can be farmed and their numbers can be controlled by culling, and the fact that they can become very tame and are at little risk of contracting livestock diseases, make this a good species to farm commercially. “I’ve lost none on my farm to common livestock diseases or predators. The latter are probably intimidated by the rams, which can be very aggressive.”

Supporters of Barbary sheep farming point out that they can easily be managed, monitored, controlled and for that matter, eradicated if necessary. The benefits far outweigh the biodiversity risks, stresses Brian, and this may become increasingly important where food security is a problem, especially in countries such as South Africa, where water is becoming an increasingly scarce natural resource.

Phone Brian Edwards on 079 339 9505.