Damara sheep: No environment too tough

Since importing his first Damaras from Namibia in the late 1980s, stud breeder Frank Blumenthal has firmly believed in the integrity of the breed. The Free State farmer says that the modern indigenous Damara has over the years evolved into a well-muscled animal with outstanding disease resistance and fertility under the hottest, driest conditions.

Damara sheep
Damaras are never polled, as the horns are formidable weapons against predators such as jackal.
Photo: Supplied

Frank Blumenthal’s passion for his Damaras is almost tangible. “I’m far too loyal to my breed to even consider crossbreeding,” he says.

He knew from the first time he came across the Damara in 1979 in the far northern corners of Namibia that this was the ideal sheep breed for South Africa’s harsh, arid farming areas.

The name of the breed is derived from the Damara area of Namibia.

The first Damaras
Blumenthal and his family farm on Zandraai (6 000ha) on the banks of the Orange River, near Luckhoff in the Free State. Zandraai Farms specialises in the production of export-quality popcorn and wheat under irrigation.

The Damara sheep are kept on Karoo-type veld and grain stover. The farm’s official carrying capacity is one smallstock unit on 3,5ha, and the flock is rotated according to grazing conditions.

The flock normally consists of about 1 000 animals kept in 21 camps, each with its own watering point.

Temperatures fluctuate from below freezing in winter to the high 30s in summer, and the annual average rainfall is about 250mm. At the time of Farmer’s Weekly’s visit, the flock was down to 800 animals.

Blumenthal brought his first Damaras to South Africa from Namibia in 1987 and continued importing them until 1992. The animals came from a wide area north of Kamanjab and SheepGrootfontein.

He was determined to acquire as many of the true Kaokoland Damaras as possible, and therefore obtained animals from a variety of owners and breeders. This enabled him to establish a wide genetic base.

According to Blumenthal, Damara-type sheep occur in most of Africa’s desert areas, including Nigeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania.

With survival of the fittest being the main selection criterion in nature, only the hardiest and most adaptable animals have survived over the millennia, thus retaining the breed’s robust genetics.

Lambing problems have also been largely eliminated. It is not uncommon to find a lamb trotting behind its mother 15 minutes after lambing begins.

A modern sheep
The Damara is well suited to the challenges of modern-day sheep farming, with its ever-increasing input and production costs.

The breed is highly resistant to disease and not susceptible to heartwater and gallsickness in the arid southern Free State.

“The sheep are virtually unaffected by internal and external parasites on my farm,” says Blumenthal. “A salt lick is the only supplemental feed my flock receives. The sheep have been naturally selected to deal with extremes.”

Blumenthal, who is dedicated to the preservation of pure Damara genetics, believes
there are only about 3 000 genetically pure Damaras left in South Africa, and even fewer
in Namibia, as poor control allowed the animals to crossbreed with other breeds.

Any animal born in the Blumenthal stud that is not true to form is immediately removed in order to conserve the genetic veracity of the flock.

The commercialisation and characterisation of the breed started at the Omatjenne Research Station near Otjiwarongo in Namibia in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Three carefully selected rams from Omatjenne formed the foundation of Blumenthal’s flock.

He says that the red tape involved in moving live animals across borders had now become too intricate to warrant importing livestock from Namibia. He thus sees it as his responsibility to manage the herd in such a way that the genetic value is expanded and not compromised.

Chocolate
Blumenthal’s eyes light up when he speaks about Chocolate, a legendary ram that played a decisive role in his flock. He purchased the animal in the early 1990s and says he was close to perfect.

Chocolate’s genetics can now be found as far afield as Canada, Mexico, Yemen and Australia, and were used extensively in the upbreeding of the Damara.

“A Chocolate descendant took the honours at the Perth National Damara Championships in 1998,” he says. “This ram set the genetic standard for my flock and to this day we reap the benefit of his contributions in terms of, among others, accelerated growth.”

Doing well in an unforgiving climate
What first attracted Blumenthal to the Damara was that the breed did not merely survive, but thrived in the hostile desert conditions of western Namibia.

A Damara will graze, or simply lie down, in the blazing sun, unaffected by excessive heat.
Although it is a hardy breed with strong walking ability and is an indeterminate grazer, Blumenthal has worked hard over the years to develop the modern Damara, as it is now known in South Africa.

Through strict selection for improved growth, muscling and breed integrity, its appearance has changed considerably.

In May, Zandraai Farms hosted a Damara auction in the newly constructed auction complex on the farm. Approximately 200 of the best animals were put up for sale. The highest-priced ram sold for R22 000, and the highest-priced ewe for R4 700.

The auction was a great success, which Blumenthal ascribed to the large number of potential buyers who attended, as well as a renewed interest in pure animal breeds. He compares the Damara with the Brahman, which formed the basis of synthetic breeds such as the Simbra.

In this way, the Damara formed the basis of breeds such as the Meatmaster.

The Damara’s success in a crossbreeding concern is due to its strong hybrid vigour.

“Breeders are realising the value of the Damara and the fact that it is genetically so far removed from other sheep breeds in the country,” says Blumenthal.

Breed characteristics
Since he first started breeding Damaras, his average ewe weight has increased from 30kg to 55kg, while the rams’ average weight increased from 50kg to more than 85kg.

A well-known breed characteristic is its fat tail, which tapers to a point.

Damara meat is juicy and tasty, with a fine texture, and is not mottled with fat. The fat on the carcass forms a 1mm to 2mm layer, which makes it ideally suited to today’s health-conscious consumer.

“The tail fat is of the highest quality, with a fine white texture. It’s an ideal ingredient in sausage-making, especially droëwors during the hunting season,” says Blumenthal.

Ewes can be mated at 30 to 36 weeks, with first lambing at 52 to 58 weeks.

The average inter-lambing period is between 30 and 34 weeks, and multiple births are common. Low average lambing weights of between 4kg and 4,5kg mean very few lambing problems.

The ewes have a reproductive lifespan of between eight and 13 years because of their strong, well-developed teeth, among other attributes. Because of their strong maternal instinct, a rejected lamb is practically unheard of.

The Damara is legendary for its fertility, and even during the recent devastating drought, a 100% lambing percentage was maintained on Zandraai.

The mating season lasts from November to December to ensure that the ewes finish lambing by June. Between 10 and 15 rams are used for every 100 ewes, which makes for easier management, according to Barend Greeff, the general manager and a shareholder in the Damara stud. He and Blumenthal run the stud in a profit-sharing partnership, with Greeff in charge of the day-to-day business.

Damara are not polled, says Blumenthal, as the horns are formidable weapons against predators. The rams have a strong, masculine head with spiral horns. The ewes have smaller, curled horns with a sharp point.

Their strong flocking instinct makes mustering easy; the sheep are very alert and can spot a predator from afar.

On the day of Farmer’s Weekly’s visit, the ewes kept a keen eye on the vehicle and photographer, constantly moving away, and the flock stuck together.

“The flocking instinct makes life difficult for stock thieves and it would be exceedingly difficult to catch an individual animal,” Blumenthal says.

Email Frank Blumenthal at [email protected]. Visit zandraaifarms.co.za