Predator debate

Dr Dan Parker (23 November, pg 40) suggested that the solution to the conflict between the academic community and the agricultural community with regard to the control of problem animals was for ‘individual egos and intellectual arrogance to take a back seat’.

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Excellent advice in my opinion! Let us hope that the misguided and arrogant academics, who insist on harassing the farmers in the media, heed this advice. Consultants, researchers and academics who love to comment on the problem animal issue all suffer one major flaw in my opinion. They accept no personal responsibility for the advice they are so keen to dish out.

Until these academics put their money where their mouth is, and personally invest their hard-earned savings in farm land and livestock on which they can then test their wonderful theories, I do not believe that we farmers should take their advice too seriously. 

The average farmer’s commitment is total. His farm and livestock often represent everything he owns. Until these academics have set up successful working models that prove their theories to be fact, they should have the decency to admit that their opinions are no more than theories. Academics also love to use a smokescreen of clever-sounding catch phrases such as ‘apex predators killing smaller predators and altering meso-predator behaviour’ and predator populations ‘ self-regulating’ if left undisturbed. I don’t know who this impresses, but none of it solves the problem.

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Unfortunately for farmers, millions of well-meaning city dwellers who enjoy wildlife documentaries on their TV lap up this ‘politically correct’ drivel like thirsty kittens. Farmers know that the reality on the ground is quite different. Unfortunately it also appears that the average city dweller is not really interested in reality, but prefers a fantasy world that would make Disney proud.

Meat purchased neatly wrapped in plastic at supermarkets, and milk supplied in sanitised bottles has created a convenient barrier separating these superior beings from the lowly farmer who carries out the distasteful job of food production.

It is also an unfortunate fact that far more people live in the city than in the country, and these misguided folk are guilty of voting-in legislation that can be detrimental to farming. When it comes to controlling problem animals, once again academics like to look down their noses at the farmers who have been killing predators for the last 200 years. They like to point out that the predator numbers are on the increase, despite the farmers’ efforts at eradication. Derogatory remarks usually follow which question the intelligence (and sanity) of these foolish farmers.

The conclusion academics draw from this is: killing predators obviously does not work – the solution they believe, is to stop killing predators!

If we use the same logic with crime in SA, we can safely say that the police have been trying to prevent crime for the last 200 years, yet crime is on the increase – using their same warped logic, we then conclude that crime prevention does not work, and the solution is to stop all policing!

Rather than listen to this nonsense, we farmers need to adapt and improve our methods just as the predators have adapted – we need better policing – we need smarter predator control measures – we dare not stop, because we have too much to lose. The scientists, of course, have nothing to lose. Predator numbers are NOT increasing because we are killing them!

Predator numbers are increasing for a number of reasons. I will mention a few. Due to profit margins tightening over the years, some small farmers have been forced to sell out to larger operations. The larger farmers have learnt that to survive in today’s economy, they need to cut down on costs and overheads – farmers now employ fewer labourers per farm and run more livestock per labourer. Farmers have to focus on getting only the essential jobs done, and often chores like maintaining 50-year-old fences are no longer a priority.

These changes have created a quieter and less restricted environment which suits animals like jackal, caracal and bushpig. With the change in government a number of years ago, law and order broke down in some rural areas and stock theft increased dramatically. Some farmers believed that cattle were less likely to be stolen than small-stock, and these farmers changed from sheep and goats to beef.

Unfortunately, farmers that had switched to cattle farming also believed they now no longer needed to control predators. They were soon to learn the error of their ways. Thousands of hectares of farm land have also been transformed into game farms and private nature reserves, and once again, the control of problem animals ended. The list can go on and on. These are some of the reasons that damage-causing animals are on the increase, NOT because farmers shoot them.

Another popular myth that has done the rounds amongst academics for a good 20 years is based on the idea that a jackal pair will defend its territory against ‘outside’ jackal. This wonderful theory suggests that if left undisturbed, this ‘good’ pair of jackal will ensure your farm is not overrun with ‘bad’ jackals from elsewhere. How the ‘bunny-huggers’ must have loved this one, and how perfect this theory must sound to academics seated in their air-conditioned offices. We can just imagine them plotting these neat territories on the screens of their computers and even colour-coding the different pairs! How farmers wish this to be true!

The problem begins when this pair of ‘good’ jackal decides to start a family. These good jackal tend to breed healthy, hungry and fertile offspring. The offspring all need a place to stay, and meat to eat. What happens in practice is that the jackal population increases. Slowly at first, and then with frightening speed.

More jackal means competition for food increases, predation escalates, and ‘territories’ get smaller. As the jackal numbers increase, available food per jackal decreases, and the lower plane of nutrition may cause females to produce slightly smaller litters, but it certainly does not stop them breeding altogether.

Many cattle and game farms that stopped controlling predators will tell you that the ‘self-regulating’ theory is simply theoretical hogwash and wishful thinking. Jackal populations absolutely explode. Only lack of food or an outbreak of disease is going to limit jackal numbers if farmers do not cull them.

The average ‘family farm’ is a multi-million rand business that needs to be managed very efficiently. The return on capital investment on a livestock farm is incredibly low. It is the farm manager’s duty to make daily decisions on issues such as veld management/stocking rates/supplementation/water supply/breeding policy/parasite control/problem animal control/labour management/accounting, etc.

Farms are not nature reserves, they are businesses. All landowners may have a certain responsibility towards attempting to maintain a certain biodiversity, but to believe that commercial farms must become what academics call ‘fully functioning ecosystems’, and that farmers need to be held accountable for every living creature on their farm without compensation, is totally unrealistic.

South Africa is blessed with many beautiful reserves where the academics and scientists can strive for their perfect eco-systems and biodiversity. Farmers on the other hand, need to firstly strive to survive in a harsh economic climate, and secondly, strive to provide food for a burgeoning population.

The ‘animal rights anti-hunt’ activists acknowledge that ‘damage causing animals’ are on the increase. They even accuse the farmer of causing the increase. Surely it is just simple logic that animals that are on the increase do not need protection? Only endangered animals need protection.

Any farmer needing a little light entertainment should log onto the Landmark Leopard and Predator website. These ‘anti-hunting’ and ‘animal rights’ activists get my vote for the ‘Prozac Award’ for the most emotional and irrational reporting. On this site, farmers are accused of many terrible crimes. One gem of a statement accuses farmers of ‘using helicopter gunships to sanitise their farms of biodiversity’, then with images of ‘Blackhawk Down’ flashing through my mind I find a picture of the ‘gunship’ in question. A small civilian helicopter with a gutsy young man standing on the rails with his shotgun! Oh dear me…emotional hysteria at its best.

In conclusion I suggest that while the academics spend donor money finding yet another theory to inflict on us, we farmers need to work smarter, (and shoot straighter) so that we can protect the considerable investment we have in land and livestock. Nobody is coming to our aid if we fail.

Controlling damage-causing animals is the farmers’ responsibility. With well maintained ‘jackal-proof’ fences backed by electric fencing to prevent animals challenging the fence, farmers must then use all the ‘tools’ at their disposal. Hiring professional predator callers, training staff to trap selectively, using well-trained hound packs all help to reduce predator numbers. The use of llamas/donkeys/Anatolian shepherds/protective collars and whatever new contraption comes on the market should be embraced and tested to see if it helps the unique situation each farmer finds himself in.

Be pro-active. Stop talking – start shooting.

Talk first, shoot later