Eastern Cape sheep farmers are still counting their losses after cold and rain swept across the north of the province, killing thousands of sheep.
Farmers in and around Barkly East – still reeling after runaway fires devastated the region last month – have been hit by temperatures well below freezing, coupled with rain and snow, causing massive damage to herds where wool producers sheared their sheep earlier this month.
Early estimates are that a minimum of 4 000 sheep have died across the province since the weekend, when temperatures dropped below -10°C and 100mm of rain fell in places, and some farmers lost up to a quarter, or even half, of their entire flocks.
But despite the losses, the farming community banded together, with farmers who were lucky enough to suffer no or minimal losses donating livestock to those who lost the most.
A further silver lining many are looking forward to is the relief from the drought the wet weather will bring.
National Wool Growers Association Eastern Cape vice-chairman Tink Strydom said some farmers would have suffered double losses as many of the sheep killed had been pregnant ewes or ewes which had recently given birth.
“Not only does the farmer lose that ewe, but he also loses its offspring.
“Farmers who lost less might be able to absorb those losses, but some farmers might never recover from this.”
Strydom said October was traditionally the industry’s shearing season and most of the losses had been suffered on farms where shearing had started earlier in the month, and sheep had been left without their woolly coats to protect them from the extreme cold.
“I can’t even imagine what the damage would have been if this had happened a week or two from now, when most farmers had sheared their entire herds. The losses would have been disastrous.”
He said the Barkly East region, and stretching into the Free State, had seen upwards of 2 000 sheep die in one night last weekend, with the number climbing early in the week.
Farmers from as far west as Graaff-Reinet also reported losses of at least 300 sheep in that region.
“We can count the losses now, but I think the actual impact will only become clear over the next few months.
“We head into this challenging period already on the back foot, as we have four
very tough years behind us. Some farmers are already stretched to the limit, and losses like this could seriously affect their cash flow and possibility of securing loans in the coming months.”
Barkly East Farmers’ Association chairman Gideon Greyvenstein said their region was facing one disaster after the other.
In addition to the drought, they are still gathering information from their members to determine the damage last month’s fires caused to buildings, grazing and fencing.
More than 45 000ha of farmland was destroyed by runaway fires, with the cold and wet weather wreaking further havoc.
“Our sheep can handle cold, rain and wind, but not all at the same time. Many died from pneumonia or related illnesses.
“They were sheared and caught out in the rain, then the temperatures dropped well below zero very quickly.”
However, he said the rain and snow had brought much-needed moisture to the region, leaving a partially positive outlook for coming months despite their losses.
“The rain should help our grazing to recover after the fires.
“At the very least we should have enough food to assist our farmers in recovering from this latest catastrophe.”
In the meantime, farmers who were lucky enough not to suffer such devastating losses have come together to donate livestock to farmers who suffered the most.
Barkly East farmer Jannie Pretorius said all the farmers in their region were part of a WhatsApp chat group, and once news of the devastation started spreading, help and donations had started pouring in.
“When pictures of some farmers’ losses started circulating many of us began doing the sums and saw we could donate some of our stock,” Pretorius said.
Some farmers pledged between five and 15 sheep, promising to donate them at the end of the month once shearing was complete.
“Within one day we had 300 sheep in the pool, and we [now] have upwards of 600 sheep pledged to be distributed among the worst-affected farmers in our region.”
Pretorius said help had come from all over the country when the fires hit them, so they saw this as an opportunity to pay it forward.
“We were so grateful for the assistance we received, so now it is our opportunity to give back. And who knows, in a month or two we may need help again. Then we hope people remember the kind gestures we are showing.”