Regenerative Cattle grazing project on Swebeswebe

In the later part of the 20th century, the Waterberg was still relatively unknown. Large predators roamed its valleys and plains, and herds of big game periodically entered the area seeking grazing and shelter.

Then, as farming established the area’s economy, the herds gave way to cattle and crops. Tobacco became a popular cash crop and the mostly acidic soils of the Waterberg made for a booming industry.

The cattle caused a few problems of their own.

Most farmers farmed intensively over much of their land. Rotational grazing was a concept that only later became accepted. By then, large parts of the Waterberg were destroyed. Bush encroachment and erosion became evident as drought followed. Farmers had to sell their properties. Those that could survive, had to diversify their farming practices.

This was the time during the 1980’s that much of the Waterberg became game farms. Wealthy businessmen from the cities bought and consolidated properties, wild animals of all sorts and breeds were re-introduced to their former habitats, and hunting and eco-tourism became the new cash crop.

Some properties were large enough to house big game. But they were closed in by electrified fences. No migrations could take place. Grass diversity started to suffer, as did the soils. Wild animals, on average, tend to eat the best morsels first, then move on to the less palatable species. Some plants are constantly browsed and grazed while some are left to grow moribund and stale.

That was the conundrum that faced Swebeswebe Nature Reserve.

Swebeswebe Nature Reserve was established as a conservation-orientated reserve in the 1980s. The reserve now spans almost 5500 hectares and certainly is one of the most picturesque reserves in the Waterberg. The reserve is known for its rock formations formed by the Klip, Wolwe and Cabiaan rivers over millennia. The diversity in plant and animal life is astonishing. Sneezewoods share the kloofs with Boxwoods and Stinging nettle trees. Birds of every description (and there are around 200 species recorded) share the reserve with hooved animals of every description.

In 2021 the Directors of Swebeswebe became aware of a problem. The grass layers on the reserve were not as healthy as they should have been. Seed heads were scarce, and a lot of unused and moribund material was left to rot rather than being utilised by animals. They also heard about the Alan Savory method of controlled grazing, where cattle are used to alleviate the symptoms of an area devoid of big herds of herbivores.

Controlled grazing is not a new concept. Such models have been used with great success both overseas and in Africa. Its premise is that an ecosystem needs to be utilised to the full. Grasses should be eaten, and trees stripped of foliage up to a certain point. By confining a herd of animals to a relatively small area, the method aims to mimic the effect that a large herd of animals, (buffalo or Blue wildebeest), controlled by a predator (lion, hyena or leopard) will have on an ecosystem.

Provided that the animals are moved every day, the damage caused by hoof action and grazing is nullified by taking them off the area and only returning to the area long after the system had a chance to revive. A bonus of added nutrients from manure and urine can be expected.

Swebeswebe now makes use of 150 Nguni cows to do the job that buffalo and large herds of Blue Wildebeest used to do long ago.

The Nguni cows were selected because they are agile, hardy and tend to browse given the opportunity. They are horned and can be aggressive when provoked. These traits all contribute to their suitability for the project.

But, as with all pioneering projects, a lot of learning must be done before eventual success can be expected.

On arrival at the Reserve, a few things became apparent. The cows were not used to being handled by herders; they did not respect any boundaries and needed more training than initially thought. It made for an exciting first season and a very steep learning curve.

Control of the herd is by means of a mobile electric camp erected every day. The camp is around two hectares in size and is supplied with power from a mobile solar-panelled powerpack. This pack gives out about 10KV of power, which is enough to dissuade the cows from roaming. The electrical cable, made from nylon with a flexible steel core, is erected around the predetermined area by means of a series of plastic-headed pegs. The cables are housed on a roll resembling a fishing reel. The herders place the pegs around the day’s feeding camp, erect the cable, and connect the power unit to the cable.

In theory, very easy!

Practically the placement of the cable is sometimes problematic. Stony ground means that the pegs need to be hammered into the ground rather than just pushed in. Bushes and trees come in the way of a straight line, and then there is the river…

Another commonly found problem is that the power unit just does not give enough power to the electric line. This means that an earth leakage is to blame. A modified system, linking three or four earth pegs usually sorts out this problem.

At night, the cattle are housed in a canvas kraal. This gives a certain amount of security to the cows and helps the herders to spot and treat any possible injuries or ailments. The kraal is made up of panels of heavy-duty canvas, the type that large tents are made of, and is held up by a stainless-steel cable stretched around the perimeter of the kraal.

The herders are housed in a tent with their charges. Food and water are provided, and a solar-powered trailer keeps things neat and tidy. It also has a freezer installed to make the camp a little more homely.

After one full year on our journey with our Nguni’s, we have learnt to expect challenges. Ticks are a problem, although spot treatment keeps most of the arachnids at bay. Wounds, inflicted by horn or bush are treated as soon as they are encountered. Predators do roam the area, although only marginal losses can be attributed to them.

And the system that we are attempting to renew?

Well, time will tell. Preliminary results are promising. Grasses that were dead and moribund got a new lease on life. Trees, now utilised, have started growing upwards rather than into bushes. There is a definite vibrance to the veld where the cows have been. The reedbeds, inaccessible for years, have been opened for bushpig and waterbuck to live in.

The model of regenerative grazing is flexible. The effect thereof is mostly proven. Swebeswebe has a better, more successful ecological system because of the herd.

Now, for the next three years.