Stock theft in the Free State

Research conducted by Willem Lombard and Hermias van Niekerk at the University of the Free State’s department of agricultural economics paints a dismal picture of stock theft in the province, with official statistics not reflecting the true numbers.

Stock theft in the Free State
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The impact of livestock theft in the Free State is more severe than reflected by official statistics, according to a recent study conducted by the University of the Free State (UFS). The research showed that over a three-year period (2011 to 2013), livestock to the value of about R247 million were lost to theft (stolen and not recovered) each year on average. 

Official statistics over the same period show that 19 772 sheep were lost to theft in the Free State each year, but the UFS study found this figure to be 329% higher – 84 995 sheep. There was a 48% difference in official cattle statistics and study numbers, at 6 490 and 9 622 lost respectively. The pattern was repeated for goats: official statistics put the numbers lost at 827, while the study found the figure to be 1 155, a 40% difference.

The study
The above findings are based on results from the first progress report of an ongoing study investigating livestock theft in the Free State, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Study aims include:

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  • Determining the direct and indirect cost of livestock theft;
  • Identifying methods that farmers use to control stock theft;
  • Investigating variables affecting stock theft. 

The first phase of the study focused on the Free State, where livestock farmers were asked to complete questionnaires during telephonic interviews. Table 1 shows livestock and farmland. Livestock represented in the data accounts for 3,31%, 3,48% and 3,61% of the sheep, cattle and goats in the province respectively.

The average age of respondents was 51, with 24,5 years’ farming experience. Of concern was the fact that over the three-year period, each farmer lost on average 32,45 sheep (10,82 per year) and 4,86 cattle (1,62 per year). Equally worrying was the average recovery success, with only 5,24 of the 32,45 stolen sheep per farmer and 0,94 of the 4,86 stolen cattle per farmer being recovered.

Table 2
shows the direct costs of sheep theft per municipality. Assuming that the survey data is accurate, the annual direct financial impact of sheep theft in the Free State over the three-year period was estimated at R144 million. Based on the data, 84 955 sheep were lost each year to stock theft.

The district with the largest direct annual loss (R43 076 300) was Thabo Mofutsanyana district, with Mangaung district having the smallest (R2 386 800). Although Lejweleputswa district had the highest loss rate, the small number of sheep in the district led to low direct annual losses.

Table 3 shows the direct costs of cattle theft per municipality. Thabo Mafutsanyana district experienced the second-highest cattle loss rate (0,56%) and the largest annual cattle losses (4 530) of the five districts. Although the loss rate is slightly less than that of Lejweleputswa district (0,57%), the large number of cattle produced the highest number of cattle losses.

Losses in Thabo Mofutsanyana district were almost double those of Lejweleputswa district, which came in second with 2 567 losses. The annual direct cost of cattle losses in the Free State was calculated at slightly more than R100 million. Table 4 shows the direct costs of goat theft per municipality. Xhariep district lost 1 027 goats per year, a relatively high number due in part to the large number of goats in the district. The annual direct cost of goat theft was calculated at R2,25 million.

indirect costs
The preferred methods that farmers use to control stock theft include:

  • Corralling of livestock (47%);
  • Livestock guards (13%);
  • Guard dogs (13%);
  • Stock theft collars (10%);Cameras (8%).

The last method appears to be on the rise, indicating that technology is being used to combat stock theft. Actions that the farmers take against stock theft include:

  • Actively patrolling (48%);
  • Patrolling during known problematic times (15%);
  • Implementing access control (20% actively, 13% strategically).

Stolen animals represent the direct cost of livestock theft. However, there are also costs associated with the above methods and actions, and these represent the indirect cost of stock theft. Table 5 shows calculations for the indirect cost of livestock theft. Thabo Mofutsanyana district spends the largest amount (about R17 million per year), followed by Fezile Dabi district (about R16 million per year) and thereafter Lejweleputswa district (approximately R16 million per year).

A district’s indirect costs correspond to its direct costs; the districts that experienced larger losses spent more money on actions and methods. The total annual cost of livestock theft is represented in the last column of Table 5.

Thabo Mofutsanyana experienced the largest annual losses (R107 million). This value was significantly higher than the value of Fezile Dabi which followed (R80 million).

According to the data, the total annual cost of livestock theft in the Free State was R304 million, an astonishing amount, highlighting the need to seriously attend to the problem of livestock theft.


Investigation into variables affecting stock theft revealed that:

  • Farmers who take longer to report losses are more likely to become victims of stock theft;
  • Sheep are farmed further away from towns due to stock theft;
  • Farmers near the Lesotho border experience theft on a more regular basis but not at levels higher than the rest of the province;
  • The use of stock theft collars is on the rise but these have not been proven to prevent stock theft;
  • Larger farms tended to experience higher levels of theft than smaller farms;
  • Although livestock are corralled, stock theft could be caused by coralling. Animals confined to a small area make it easier for thieves to catch them;
  • Farmers who have been farming for a longer time are more likely to fall victim to stock theft. This could be due in part to their growing tired of devising methods to curb stock theft;
  • Farmers closer to informal settlements experienced stock theft more frequently.

Recommendations to farmers

All livestock farmers are advised to:

  • Ensure that their animals are branded or tattooed. This serves as the first line of defence;
  • Count their livestock daily to ensure early detection of losses. This improves the chances of successfully retrieving lost animals;
  • Report all cases of livestock theft to the South African Police Service. This will ensure that official statistics accurately represent the seriousness of livestock theft in the province.

Continued research
Livestock farmers in the Eastern Cape are currently being asked to participate in the survey. All farmers who are contacted are urged to participate to ensure accurate and reliable results. Finally, our sincere thanks go to those farmers in the Free State who participated in the study, as well as to the research funders, the Red Meat Research and Development Trust.

Phone Willem Lombard at the University of the Free State on 051 401 3109 or email [email protected].