Categories: Game & Wildlife

Can caracals save sheep?

Richard and Marion Holmes were losing about 50 sheep a year to jackal until Austrian researcher Dr Mircea Pfleiderer, while studying small cats, suggested they introduce more caracal.

Richard and Marion Holmes were losing about 50 sheep a year to jackal until Austrian researcher Dr Mircea Pfleiderer, while studying small cats, suggested they introduce more caracal. Acting against their farming instincts they followed her advice and now their losses are down to about six sheep a year. Julienne du Toit visited their farm near Cradock in the Eastern Cape and ponders the merits of wider biodiversity on livestock farming.

ALMOST ANY SHEEP FARMER IN this country will, at some stage, have wondered whether he was raising sheep or jackal. No matter what farmers do – hire varmint hunters, set traps, kraal the sheep – the jackals always seem to come out on top. Richard Holmes, a fourth generation farmer in the Cradock area in the Eastern Cape, thinks he may have stumbled across a solution, but it’s one that goes against every instinct.

Richard has a 3 400ha game and livestock farm with 600 Dohne Merino ewes. At one stage he was losing 50 sheep a year to jackal and, like most farmers, tried all the tricks in the book. But mortality stayed steady, and the jackals outwitted him at every turn.

In despair, he mentioned his problem to Dr Mircea Pfleiderer, an Austrian researcher studying small cats – African wildcat, caracal, serval and black-footed cat – in the area. She suggested a subversive step. What about introducing more caracal? Richard’s mind reeled as he pictured his neighbours’ response and even greater sheep losses.

Dr Pfleiderer explained that caracal and jackal are eternal enemies, and would pursue and kill one another, and each other’s young, wherever possible. In this way they keep each other’s populations in check. The same is true of lions and hyenas, another cat-dog kind of rivalry that goes back aeons. In fact, most predators will kill others if they get a chance.

Richard felt he had nothing more to lose, so some caracal were brought in from other farms. These animals are usually very easy to trap because of their feline curiosity. To his complete amazement, the plan worked. His losses plummeted and today, six years later, he loses only six sheep, on average, to predators per year. He explains that you’ll typically find one caracal per 400ha, and one jackal per 1 000ha, so his predator population has balanced out at eight to 10 caracal and four to six jackal on the farm at any one time.

More feline ventures
Dr Pfleiderer’s work has changed their lives in more ways than one. She studied the breeding of small cats in captivity and had to return periodically to Germany. Richard’s wife Marion helped to take care of them during these times and became fascinated by them. Now, apart from the sheep and 15 game species, they are breeding African wildcat, black-footed cat, serval and caracal in captivity.

Their neighbours know about the project and some are interested in it, but for others the message is slow to get through. The Holmes family was recently heartbroken when Flash, a young serval they had hand-raised from a kitten after his mother had killed its littermates, was stabbed to death by a neighbour’s staff member who claimed the cat had killed 20 Angora goats. The culprit was later found to be a caracal.

Marion removes the scats from the cat enclosures every two days. Richard has found a use for that too. If scattered around the sheep camps, it deters other predators.

“I used to have a few lambs taken from the camps every year, but since I started using the cat dung, not one. In fact, I have advertised caracal scats for sale in the local newspaper at R100/kg,” says Richard. “Only one guy called me, and he thought I was mad. Yet just think – I could be saving him thousands. He could do what we do, and put it in the freezer – it still retains its smell when thawed.”

Richard says that since he confessed his unorthodox methods, several local farmers have come round to his way of thinking. “A few have tried our trick of trying to keep jackal and caracal populations in balance, and it seems to be working, especially where there is enough other wildlife for them to eat. Predators generally prefer rodents, springhares and small antelope to sheep. They only seem to eat sheep when there is nothing else,” he explains.

Professor Graham Kerley of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s Centre for African Conservation Ecology confirms that caracal and jackal have a well-known antagonistic relationship. This mostly involves competition over territorial use, and predating on each other’s young.

“There are other non-lethal effects. The mere presence of a new predator in an area will affect the way animals use the landscape, in the same way that people might avoid certain areas that are prone to crime,” explains Prof Kerley.  “There is an urgent need for serious, well-funded studies on the jackal issue that will take it beyond the single-farmer anecdote stage,” advises Prof Kerley.

”Over the past 300 years, the agricultural community has dealt with predators by trying to kill them, and as a result, lions, cheetahs and hyenas have been wiped out in farming areas. But millions of rands, literally, have been spent on trying to control jackal, with limited success.” |fw

Breeding wildcats

The cat breeding methods Marion Holmes has pioneered with Austrian researcher Dr Mircea Pfleiderer have proved to be world class. Recently the curator of the carnivores at Cincinnati Zoo in the United States visited their facility and left highly impressed, determined to try out some of Marion’s methods to breed the notoriously difficult black-footed cats.

The enclosures at Richard and Marion’s farm Clifton are generous. Each enclosure has natural sheltering features such as hollow trees stumps, sisal logs, plants and rocks. Rain furrows, lined with river sand, are a particular favourite hideout for the cats. But any animal in captivity, no matter how delightful its space, can suffer from boredom.

To counter this, Dr Pfleiderer and Marion found that ”kitty TV” was particularly effective. Each cat enclosure borders on another full of guinea pigs, and the cats spend hours watching them. Other cat-entertainment consists of feathers dangling from elastics tied to overhanging branches. Bringing in any object from the outside – even a rock or a scrap of material – provides a change of smell-scenery for the cats lasting 24 hours, says Marion.

I follow as Marion walks around feeding her charges, and meet Eddie and Cleo, two pure-bred African wildcats. Eddie watches us calmly as he warms up in the early morning sun in the hollow of his favourite tree trunk. As instructed by Marion, I blink politely at him. Staring is a sign of aggression among cats. Eddie graciously lowers his eyelids back at us.

The Holmeses have finally realised their dream of releasing some of their cats into the wild. A few game reserves have purchased their black-footed and African wildcats and their prices range from R1 000 to R15 000, and overseas zoos are also interested in importing them for their captive breeding programmes. But some game reserves are not interested because they are too small for tourist value, completely overlooking their importance in the ecosystem.

The Holmes family offers tours of their cat breeding centre, and farm holidays, game drives and hunting – all completely ethical. “We stalk on our hands and knees like cats,” warns Richard.
For more information call (048) 881 2814 or e-mailholmes@intekom.co.za.

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