SA JAGTER/HUNTER | November 2015

Barbary sheep – no ordinary animal

These mountain dwellers are popular with trophy hunters. By SHANE BRODY

Born into an Eastern Cape farming family it was customary that each autumn would be a period when the coming winter’s hunting exploits would be discussed at length with our big circle of hunter friends. Would we concentrate on hunting the elusive kudu which thrived in areas such as the greater Fort Beaufort region or would we rather consider a bushbuck hunt, assisted by hounds, in the dense coastal thickets of the province? It was the hunting of indigenous species such as these which constituted the activities of the average local hunter during those years. Would we have considered hunting exotic sheep during those years? I very much doubt it!

It was the 1970s and this was the period preceding the massive proliferation of upmarket local hunting establishments which today cater primarily for affluent foreign trophy hunters. It was also somewhat of a time of economic prosperity in South Africa and discerning local trophy hunters could relatively easily embark on buffalo, sable, and a plethora of other exotic species hunts in the game-infested countries lying to the north of our country. Along with the establishment of big local safari concerns and socio-political changes occurring within countries to the north of us, so too was there increasing talk about local operations offering greater numbers and varieties of “exotic game species”.

Essentially, this created a situation whereby both local and visiting hunters could be catered for without them needing to trek to other countries in order to add to their exotic species trophy collections. It was roundabout the early 1980s that I heard about the introduction of Barbary sheep into Tsolwana Game Reserve – a state-run facility positioned in the mountainous semi-arid region to the immediate south-east of Tarkastad in the Eastern Cape. I never really considered the hunting of these exotic animals as being worthwhile as I had a distorted mental picture of a glorified domesticated sheep with slightly larger horns than usual. The hunting of a tame animal that could be taken without much effort wasn’t for me so I never bothered to learn more about them.

What made them even more unattractive to my mind’s eye was that as an exotic species they had quickly developed a reputation as being “destructive animals which competed with indigenous game species and with livestock for food”. This demonising probably had much to do with the fact that they are called “sheep” and local sheep farmers therefore probably immediately viewed them as a threat! It was only after a recent chance discussion with Brian Edwards, a game farmer in a mountainous area of the Queenstown district that I started to learn more about Barbary sheep.

A good Barbary ram.

A subsequent visit to his farm and research I undertook for this article resulted in me developing a respect for these animals. I was also able to better understand Brian’s statement that: “These sheep have immense economic value and play an important role in stemming the proliferation of invasive vegetation on my farm.

“The decision by environmental policymakers to list them as an invasive species and to strictly control their movements in South Africa is in many ways discriminatory if considering the vast spread of other exotic animals such as the imported Zambian sable and fallow deer”. Brian continued to say: “As a former sheep farmer I believe that there are certain sheep breeds which are not indigenous to South Africa which are far more destructive to the environment than Barbary sheep could ever be”.

The Barbary sheep or Aoudad, scientifically known as Ammotragus lervia, is a caprid (goat-antelope) which was once found in abundance in the arid mountainous areas of North Africa. While to the layman it may seem more like a goat or an antelope, it is the only wild sheep species indigenous to Africa. The species is extremely hardy and tenacious, but according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), global wild numbers in countries such as Chad, Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria are in perpetual decline. Primarily, due to factors such as habitat encroachment by livestock, burgeoning numbers of feral camels which compete with them for food, and social strife in these countries where soldiers hunt them as a food source.

The IUCN estimates their numbers in their natural range to be only 5 000 to 10 000 animals and for this reason they have been placed in that organisation’s Red Data Book and are presently listed as being vulnerable. In South Africa, Barbary sheep are mostly found in the Free State, Northern Cape, and Eastern Cape, and while there is no record of precise research in this regard, their numbers are thought to be slightly in excess of 1 000 animals. Populations such as those found in Tsolwana Game Reserve have not significantly spread throughout surrounding areas and it is believed that this population is under threat of extermination due to illicit hunting with dogs. It is suspected that most contemporary populations of Barbary sheep in South Africa are the descendants of zoo animals which were originally bought by game farmers.

Contrary to my initial false perceptions in respect of how easy I imagined it was to hunt a Barbary sheep, numerous stories abound of what an immense challenge it is to hunt one of these animals in open mountainous country. Apparently they portray immense intuition when being hunted and further traits such as their supreme agility in rocky environs and ability to blend into the environment; can result in an epic hunt which enthusiasts say will never be forgotten. Hunters with more than five decades of experience involving numerous game species, who have hunted them in North Africa, will attest to the hunting skill required and to the daunting task of shooting a trophy Barbary sheep in mountainous desert country. A mere internet search for “Barbary sheep hunting in South Africa” will uncover a growing outfitting fraternity which offer Barbary sheep hunts in provinces such as the Northern Cape. Trophy rams can cost in excess of R35 000.

Barbary sheep browsing on harpuisbos, a plant not utilised by stock animals.

In the 1920s Barbary sheep from zoos were introduced onto farms in the USA. Although there are some concerns in that country that these exotic animals compete with indigenous mule deer and bighorn sheep for food they have become very popular with trophy and meat hunters in states such as Texas. Of interest is that some American hunters swear by the magnificent quality of Barbary sheep meat, particularly when making sausage from the meat of a younger animal. Hunters are intrigued by the adeptness of these animals when flitting across sheer rock faces at high speed and when jumping vertically in excess of two metres onto miniscule ledges so narrow that a man couldn’t shuffle along them.

In fact, many a hunter undertaking a true hunt by foot has left without shooting a Barbary sheep, particularly in North Africa. The searing sun, numerous kilometres of walking, the continuous need to climb steep rock faces and so forth, just became too overwhelming. Some greatly experienced hunters are therefore of the unwavering opinion that you haven’t hunted yet until you’ve bagged a Barbary sheep in open mountain country.

Barbary sheep stand between 80 and 100cm at the shoulders and can weigh anything from 40 to 140kg. While they are known to become very wild if farmed expansively, domesticated animals farmed in a more intensive manner can become very tame. They are well camouflaged in their natural deserttype environment due to a sandy-brown colouring and also blend-in very well in grassland areas particularly in the drier winter months. Hunters are often intrigued by the long hair which lines the throat area and which descends down to the chest and forelegs in rams. A mature ram of about eight years old is an awe-inspiring sight and can sport incredible horns which can grow up to 50cm in length. The horns which are very thick at the base curve outwards, backwards, and then inwards.

Ewes make good mothers and are pregnant for about 5 months before giving birth to single or twin lambs which are nimble from an early age. While mothers may be hesitant of defending lambs against predators, rams are known to become very aggressive when fendingoff uninvited intruders. Some local breeders such as Edwards have ascertained that Barbary sheep are not prone to being affected by common tick-borne diseases and this he attributes to the fact that they browse on highly aromatic plants such as khaki bush which is suspected to be offensive to bloodsucking ectoparasites. Incredibly, these animals can in some instances go for many years without drinking water as they have the ability to produce metabolic water from the vegetation they eat.

Brian Edwards who farms with more than 16 game species, including eland, kudu, nyala and so forth, started farming with a mere handful of Barbary sheep which were present on his farm when he bought the property about eight years ago. Today he has about 40 outstanding specimens and careful interaction with them has resulted in him making some important discoveries concerning Barbary sheep, discoveries which it is doubted, are widely known.

Some of the livestock farms in the Queenstown district, particularly mountainous farms, have more recently been converted into game farming establishments. Many of these farms, including Brian’s farm, are infested with harpuisbos (Euryops floribundus) and khaki bush which are invasive unpalatable plants that have flourished over the years due to constant overgrazing by livestock. Considering that no other known livestock or game species have been seen to eat harpuisbos, Brian was pleasantly surprised when he saw his Barbary sheep eating this troublesome plant.

Young barbary sheep browsing.

“What I find even more encouraging about this fondness which they have for harpuisbos is that they especially like the young plants which they pull out of the ground roots and all,” he says. “What is of further importance to me as a game farmer is that I need to utilise all available grazing and browsing space on my property and I must say that my Barbary sheep have impacted favourably on some thickets which were originally impenetrable by other species I farm with.”

What I found to be significant is that Brian’s Barbary sheep were eating harpuisbos while good grasses were present in the immediate vicinity. Thus, it is clear that they were not just browsing this plant due to a lack of other food.

With regard to fears that Barbary sheep may proliferate to such an extent that they become problematic, Brian explained: “This is an unfounded fear if Barbary sheep are farmed responsibly, because the fact that the species is regarded as vulnerable in the global sense proves that human intervention can limit their spread or even totally eradicate a particular population if need be”.

Brian believes that while it is prudent to strictly control grazer- browsers such as these in biodiversity hotspots such as where Cape fynbos is found, in more robust environs, particularly where invasive plants have multiplied, the value inherent in Barbary sheep farming should be strongly considered by environmental policymakers.

When considering the prolificacy of Barbary sheep, the growing demand for trophies, the relative ease of farming them in comparison to other more risky farming options, their no-nonsense eating habits, and the resistance they show to diseases then, perhaps Brian Edwards has discovered the ultimate species for profitable game farming. Particularly, in environments which have been overrun by invasive vegetation or have such dense vegetation that other species cannot thrive in them. • Any person wanting to know more about Brian’s Barbary sheep farming operation can contact him on 079-339-9505.

SOURCES USED: Interview with Brian Edwards, National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (No. 10 of 2004), • www.iucnredlist.org • www.free-stock-illustration. com • (https://www.google.co.za/sear ch?q=Barbary+sheep+hunting +royalty+free+photos&rlz=1C2 WLXB_enZA559ZA559&biw= 1165&bih=724&source=lnms& tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=cLV7Aafkaa4Aw& ved=0CAYQ_ AUoAQ&dpr=0.9#imgrc=Nr8G kDqo8vX5cM%3A) • http://www.scirecordbook.org/ aoudad-or-barbary-sheep-northamerica- introduced/

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