Straight talking from a trapper

While organised agriculture tries to persuade government not to fall for the impractical legislation animal-rights activists want to force through on predator management, the black-backed jackal and caracal continue to tear the heart from the small-stock industry. Experienced problem animal hunter and trapper Niekie Mostert, from Smithfield in the Free State, discussed some solutions with Roelof Bezuidenhout.

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In a nutshell, how can farmers win this drawn-out fight with predators and people who oppose lethal control methods?
I’d form a national trappers’ association, similar to what they have in the US. And I’d ask farmers to get organised and draw up a petition to present to the departments of environmental affairs and agriculture. Farmers aren’t making themselves heard loudly enough – the public only hears the one-sided, misguided views of the animal rights brigade.

The outcome will be that it’ll become impossible to produce sheep or goats, or even cattle, off the veld, and the country will have to import more meat. Government knows this. Black-backed jackal are already being culled on a large scale in national and provincial parks. The authorities have realised these predators can wipe out a herd of small game, which then has to be bought in again at huge cost. It’s ridiculous that livestock farmers should be prevented from protecting their animals from a jackal population that’s out of control.

What role can a trappers’ association play?
There are many trappers in the country – from those who use sophisticated equipment to farmworkers who have great experience, but operate on the fringes of the profession. An official trappers’ association would become the mouthpiece and administrator for all registered trappers. It would create work and place members on a sound, legitimate footing.

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Top-graded trappers would mentor selected people in each district, and farmers would eventually be able to hire trapping teams in the same way they hire shearing or fencing teams. Producer organisations such as the wool, mohair, red meat and game could pay for, or at least subsidise, such teams. This isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound – the National Predator Forum has already noted that skills in predator control shouldn’t be lost and that new people should be trained for the job. It’s just a question of doing it.

What about criticism that hunting and trapping predators is not only cruel but also counterproductive?
Experienced outdoorsmen like me have the skills to find, track and control problem-causing animals selectively, as well as the empathy to limit suffering to the minimum. That alone is a good reason to create a trappers’ association. Members will be bound by the same standards and ethics. Farmers won’t have to resort to poison or amateurish trapping methods to survive.

As it is, those of us who earn a living in this way take it very seriously, even to the point of keeping meticulous records of our activities. We’re dedicated to delivering an essential and successful service. Anyone who denies that lethal predator management is necessary is simply ignorant of the true situation out there in the veld. Proof of that is the success achieved by the hunting clubs that existed in the Free State until they were disbanded. Today, it’s hard to raise a decent lamb crop in many districts. Green lobbyists have all sorts of theories about why lethal control does not work and why so-called ecological control methods should be used.

What are your views about that?
They conveniently forget that the ecosystem is already disturbed – it’s been like that since the land became stocked with farm animals and man banished the bigger predators like lions to nature reserves. Now the black-backed jackal is at the top of the food pyramid – and it has a huge, easy supply of food in the form of livestock, as well as ‘natural’ prey like rodents, birds and smaller game. It’s common knowledge that they even form packs and attack calving beef cows.

Any organism flourishes when it has lots of food and no natural enemy. Diseases, which at one time decimated their populations, are largely under control, because the land has been tamed. So it’s really inconceivable that these predators (which might have been scavengers 200 years ago) won’t take livestock.

Any possible effect that dominating jackal might have on the feeding habits of the rest isn’t enough to sufficiently limit damage to a farmer’s flocks. Certainly, the notion that only some jackals will catch sheep is a fallacy. Most probably do, especially when they’re nursing their young in August and October and their calcium and protein needs are high.

I doubt if there’re enough mice and other prey nearby to satisfy these requirements.I’ve saved farmers thousands of rands by hunting surplus jackals on the farms during this period. Hunting or trapping them during their mating season in May and June will also reduce stock losses later on. The idea is not to annihilate the species – it’s to get the numbers down to reasonable levels. Only lethal methods will achieve that.

Is there no place, then, for control methods such as Anatolian guard dogs, protective collars and neck bells?
Not one of these can do what is needed right now – reduce the number of predators. A really well-trained dog can help keep jackals away from a flock, but can also cause more problems than they solve on extensive livestock farms. They’re certainly not biodiversity-friendly as they tend to catch small game animals too.

Conservationists who are worried about the survival of the riverine rabbit, for example, now oppose the use of these dogs. Collars and bells and sirens work for a few weeks until the jackal get used to them. Collars force the jackals to bite young lambs on other parts of their bodies, mutilating them and leaving them to suffer terribly before they die. Basically, collars interfere with the jackal’s natural killing method.

Call Niekie Mostert on 082 657 6506.