Eastern Cape’s sable pioneer

In 1994 Hennie Barnard became the first person to successfully breed sable antelope in the Eastern Cape. This finalist in the Wildlife Ranching South Africa’s 2011 Game Rancher of the Year competition has fine herds of sable and buffalo on his farm near Aberdeen. Heather Dugmore paid him a visit.

Eastern Cape’s  sable pioneer
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It is a warm winter’s day as Hennie Barnard looks across the veld from his home on the 17 000ha farm Skietfontein near Aberdeen, where he runs 175 sable antelope, 25 buffalo and 4 000 Merino sheep. ‘‘We have a wonderful quality of life here. It’s peaceful and we have a beautiful, clean, natural environment. When city people ask what we do with our time out here, I just smile,” he quips.

Close to the homestead is his hangared Robinson R44 helicopter. He obtained his licence in 1990 at the age of 19 and is a highly skilled game capture pilot with over 4 000 flying hours. Hennie ran a successful game capture operation for over 10 years, which gave him invaluable insight into game ranching operations throughout South Africa. Recognising the escalating interest in sable antelope and buffalo in the South African game breeding fraternity and among international hunters, he introduced his first sable and buffalo to Skietfontein in 1994 while his father Hennie Snr was still farming his Merino stud.

“I bought my first breeding group of seven sable antelope from Dappies Pienaar in Mossel Bay for R34 000 each. I thought it was a huge amount,” recalls Hennie. “That same year I bought my first disease-free buffalo bulls from Addo stock and females from Tony Jones in Hankey.”

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Hennie was among the first game ranchers, if not the first, to introduce disease-free buffalo on private land in the Eastern Cape. “At the time Dad was circumspect about my plan, but he let me run with it. Today he is a complete convert,” says Hennie, who moved to Skietfontein full-time with his wife Joan in 2003 and Hennie Snr subsequently retired.

Hennie currently runs the sable and buffalo on a 7 000ha game-fenced section of the farm. The balance of 10 000ha is under Merino sheep and centre pivot irrigation. In addition to breeding sable antelope, he also pioneered centre pivot-irrigated pasture for the sable “because the basis of strong, quality stock is their grazing”.

“I was concerned about their diet because the species mainly occurs in the Lowveld, so in 2007 I put in three centre pivots of about 15ha each, two for the sable and one for the sheep,” explains Hennie. He positioned these in the middle of veld camps so that the sable could move between the veld and the irrigated pasture. The area under each pivot is divided into two halves, one under summer pasture, notably Panicum species and Smuts finger grass, with winter pasture (annual ryegrass and oats) on the other.

Hennie Barnard runs sable, buffalo and Merino sheep on the 17 000ha farm Skietfontein near Aberdeen.

“The sable also do really well on the veld here,” he explains. “There are far fewer parasite issues, their coats look excellent and it is far healthier for their social structure. Consequently I now run the sable more extensively, supplemented with game cubes in winter, and alternating them between veld and pasture to boost their production.” Breeding herds consist of 15 cows to one bull. “In nature it’s about 25 cows to one bull, but I don’t want to put too much pressure on the bulls.”
The sable cows calve at two years on the land and at three years on veld. Gestation is 8,5 months and, when in good condition, they calve every nine months. 

He is now expanding his camp infrastructure to accommodate the young sable bulls, despite the cost of game fencing, currently at R65 000/km. “I don’t want to sell young bulls for R20 000 when the best breeding bulls are selling from R1,2 million to R4 million-plus. I’m keeping them until the age of four to select my breeding bulls and sell the rest as mature breeding bulls. The others can then be sold as trophy hunting bulls for around R60 000 apiece.”

By the inch
One of Hennie’s most promising four-year-old sable bulls ‘Matoppi’ already has 43,5-inch horns. “He’ll hopefully reach 47 inches by the age of six when the horns stop growing, but we’ll have to see. He’s with the cows now, and can lose two inches on the horns as a result of wear from testosterone-driven activity that sees him fighting with trees and bushes and rubbing his horns on the ground. “Sable bulls with horns around the 48-inch mark have sold for up to R4 million.There is a huge market for sable antelope.”

The winter pivot with freshly planted ryegrass and oats. Photo courtesy of Hennie and Joan Barnard.

This year he has sold 16 breeding cows in the Eastern Cape and has a waiting list for next year’s stock. “With the price of land as it is, landowners are looking at making the most profit from the land they have rather than buying more land. When they start looking at the profit to be made from sable and buffalo, they buy, which is the reason for the significant growth in the Eastern Cape market over the past couple of years,” he stresses.

Buffalo herd
In 2000 Hennie sold his disease-free Addo buffalo herd because he thought the market couldn’t last. But it did and he reinvested in Madikwe disease-free buffalo in 2008. His current herd of 25 buffalo includes two cows, bought for
R300 000 in 2008 from Wiaan van der Linde, certified pregnant from the bull with the longest horns in South Africa – ‘Tyson’, at 53 inches – now owned by Norman Adami.

Hennie is not selling any buffalo at present as he is building up his herd, which includes six bulls. In a few years he’ll be ready to sell to breeders and hunters. “There’s an insatiable demand from hunters for sable and buffalo with good horns. Hunters are struggling to find buffalo bulls with 40-inch horns elsewhere in Africa, so in future the best quality will be in South Africa,” he explains.

“The added advantage of sable and buffalo is that they are far less labour intensive, and because of the low numbers they have a low impact on the veld. I have seven fine staff members working with me, but I mainly need them for the sheep. With the sable and buffalo, I need two guys to help me load when I am doing capture, either when I’m selling animals or tagging them, or when I’m disease-testing buffalo in the quarantine boma.”

He does all his own flying and game capture, and his neighbour is a vet, which is handy for the darting process. Despite the growth in the Eastern Cape’s sable and buffalo market, Hennie is not worried about market saturation as “the market in future will be about quality”. Because of this, he is pushing for quality and concentrating on breeding and buying good genes such as the 45-inch, four-year-old sable bull ‘Ruben’, which he and his friend Tielman Neethling bought last year for R1,25 million on the Thaba Tholo Auction.

Tielman also bought ‘Tsunami’ with Piet du Toit for R4 million, the highest price paid for a sable antelope bull to date.
“There are lots of good bulls around but the sellers want from R3 million for them, so I went for a young bull with potential,” stresses Hennie. “It makes sense to buy good bulls because with Matoppi, for example, I can get from R20  000 to R30 000 more for a cow pregnant by him.”

Pregnant cows from South African or Matetsi genetic lines sell, on average, for R220 000 to R230 000. Zambian genetic lines sell from R600 000 to R800 000, but they are difficult to get hold of in SA because of the restrictions of bringing them into the country.

While handsome profit from game brought Hennie to where he is today, he is concerned about the excessive prices being paid at certain game auctions. “If you go too far from the trophy price when buying females, the market risks becoming unsustainable. Few can afford R20 million for a buffalo cow and calf.”

He is also concerned about the market for colour variations. “Huge prices are being paid for colour variations, such as R180 000 for a ‘black’ impala, when a normal impala sells for R900. We can all make excellent money from colour variations, but I don’t think this is the right direction, and I am worried that the variations might be bred at the expense of the original animals.”

Hennie plans to invest in roan antelope in the future. “My neighbour has roan and they’re well adapted to the veld, so I’m looking into this,” he says. There isn’t a big market for roan among trophy hunters but, with a bit of marketing, who knows what might happen. After all, he was right about sable in the Eastern Cape.

Contact Hennie Barnard on 082 491 7783, or email [email protected]