Counting sheep

2008-07-14 00:00

“The story of indigenous Nguni sheep is similar to that of traditional crops,” says Richard Haigh. “We only value them when they start to disappear.”

There are three varieties of Nguni sheep in southern Africa: Swazi sheep, Pedi sheep and, in our part of the world, the Zulu sheep: Izimvu, plural; Imvu, singular. They have hair instead of wool and come in assorted colours: black, brown, reddish brown and pied. Their distinctive tapered tails are fat and long, their ears short and, in some cases, mouse-like. Ewes as well as rams can have horns — or no horns.

Haigh first encountered these indigenous sheep while working as a project manager at the Valley Trust. “I knew there were a few households who had sheep,” he says. “It was something I wanted to follow up but only when we came here could I start to explore them.

“Here” is the farm Enaleni, “a place of abundance” — the farm, near Umlaas Road, which Haigh and partner David Brennan purchased just over a year ago. Once Haigh had the farm it was a case of finding the sheep. Those he knew of in the Valley of a Thousand Hills had been slaughtered. The only thing to do was ask around. “I was working out at Msinga on a project. One day, while driving, I saw some women working on the Zimbambele Road Project. I stopped and asked them if they knew anyone with sheep.”

They did but said to telephone when next he came that way. Haigh said he would wait until they finished work. “They took me to someone who had some sheep and I managed to buy a couple.” This approach found Haigh introduced to more people around the province with Izimvu. “The problem was they didn’t always want to sell, and if they did, they wanted to keep the best animals — but that’s all part of negotiation.”

Today Haigh has 16 sheep from around the province — from Msinga Top, Pomeroy, Gingindlovu, Pongola, Empangeni and Nkandla — they include two rams with different bloodlines.

“The breed is 1 600 to 1 800 years old and I was struck by the incredible journey that they made here down through Africa,” he says. “They came from Asia Minor to Egypt, and then on down the Nile through East Africa.”

That journey saw the sheep adapt to extreme geographical and climatic conditions, equipping them with impressive genetic potential. “They are adapted to survive hard conditions,” says Haigh. “They have resistance to tick-borne diseases and hardiness and adaptability to humid and dry areas. They also have high fecundity combined with a tenacious mothering ability. The mothers will attack predators like jackal.”

“It’s a survival mechanism,” says Haigh. “In the African heat they don’t want body fat so it’s concentrated in the tail. They are also extremely agile.”

Izimvu are mainly bred for meat, while the skins are used for items of traditional dress, including kilts, shoulder straps and other decorative items. The animals also play a role in religious rituals. “If a household is really in chaos they remove the ancestors in a ritual that involves slaughtering a sheep and then, when things have calmed down, they return them by using a goat,” says Haigh. “The sheep is used because it doesn’t bleat when killed; goats bleat, thus drawing the attention of the ancestors.”

The fat of the sheep is also used as a therapeutic body rub. “It’s used to calm someone who is over-aggressive. It’s a case of using a quality of a particular animal, like the lion is associated with courage.”

Despite the role these animals play in Zulu culture, the breed could be on the way out. Next year they are due to be listed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations as endangered. Izimvu are victim to the same forces that have seen the decline in traditional crops — industrialised agriculture and the consequent sidelining of traditional farming methods which have seen local breeds displaced by intensive livestock production.

“As people farm less and become urbanised, there are shifts in livestock numbers,” says Haigh. “You get fragmented populations of sheep and fragmented populations mean you can’t exchange animals as was traditionally done.”

The numbers of Izimvu are also declining rapidly due to their replacement by imported breeds. “People introduce new breeds such as Dorpers,” says Haigh. “People see them at agricultural shows and think ‘the big farmers have them therefore they must be good’.”

Introducing imported breeds that are not adapted to local conditions and breeding them with indigenous sheep destroys the genetic background. “If you are crossbreeding, either on purpose or by accident, the breed becomes threatened,” says Haigh. “You would never put a Merino down in the Thukela Valley.”

The specific features of an indigenous breed can be destroyed within a few generations. Valuable traits such as disease resistance, adaptation to available forage and behavioural characteristics, can be lost and only rescued with difficulty.

“You have to calculate the consequences if you introduce a Dorper ram,” says Haigh. “It’s like what happens with Nguni cattle interbred with Brahmins — it takes five generations of backcrossing to get rid of those ears.”

Motivated by the fact that in Europe many livestock breeds are disappearing, Haigh is hoping to network with other Izimvu owners to create a genetically rich active population. “Even if I had 200 sheep, if they were all genetically similar it would mean nothing for the breed — they would become extinct. You have to access new blood to keep flocks going.”

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