Perspectives on farm living
It is now my seventh month living in Namibia for my PhD fieldwork and my fifth on the livestock farm collecting data. How time has flown! When I first came to visit this farm back in July I never envisioned that I would have even stayed here (I had plans to live on another farm but that didn’t quite work out…!), let alone feel so at home here. Always having lived in cities, towns and large villages before, I wasn’t sure how well I’d cope being a 260 km roundtrip to the nearest town, not least because of the lack of social activities, but also the logistical constraints on buying things like food when you run out!
Fortunately, I fitted in spectacularly well to farm life, helping out with every aspect, from the happy and fun like playing with the dogs, to the grim and ugly like assisting with the killing and butchering of cows. What I have seen and taken part with on this farm has opened my eyes to the world of livestock raising in an area shared with predators (which was the goal of my fieldwork), but also the struggle that farmers have in this arid country to be able to make a living from raising animals extensively on grass in times of drought. I’ve seen the financial effects, as well as the psychological, which has made me question the sustainability of this livelihood for a future destined to have heightened extremes of weather.
I’ve seen jackals running around close to the sheep kraal when I first arrived and worried that the jackals may take some of the lambs. At that point, back in August, the drought was still present but hadn’t reached the extreme tipping point that it did in October. Thus, there was still wild food around for the jackals, so the farmer was not scared that his livestock would be taken. And indeed, he was correct. Then as the months went by and the grass became drier, the wild and domesticated ungulates began to start showing signs of starvation. During this time, the jackals became more desperate, visiting the sheep kraal regularly, until one night the inevitable happened: a lamb was taken, despite Andy’s (the guarding dog) best efforts. Now once the jackals stepped over their mark, the farmer’s attitude to predators instantly changed. Off he went with his son, armed with a rifle and a spotlight, to hunt the perpetrators down at night. Once spotted, he took a shot, but luckily for the jackals, missed. That seemed to be enough to scare them away, as there were no more livestock losses after that incident.
I’ve come to realise that, far from what some conservationists will lead you to believe, farmers in general do tolerate predators on their land – sometimes to an astonishingly lenient way. Most agree that predators belong in the wild and would prefer to see them roaming around on farmland as well as national parks, but they will all tell you that if a predator starts causing problems, you must do something about it. What you do is up to the farmer and his prior experience, values and economic status. Some resort to lethal means, others step up their game with guarding their livestock.
On this farm, the owner has a very understanding view of nature and loves to see wildlife, including large carnivores such as cheetahs, on his land. “They belong there”, he says, and muses about the future of Namibian farmland, hoping that his son will still be able to see these wild animals when he takes over the farm in the future. He keeps ostriches on the farm not for food but for the sheer joy of seeing them. He does hunt, but only takes what he needs and is very clever about what animal he shoots (older males usually past their prime breeding age). He teaches his kids about nature and talks fondly of his experiences with wild animals.
|Farm worker carries little calf that had run away from the herd|
Living on a farm has given me a backstage pass to unlimited access to these windows of observations that I would not have been able to gather had I lived a cushy life in town (or indeed at the relative safety of a previous carnivore conservation organisation I used to work at). Sure, it would have been much easier to have taken that road, but the data I’ve collected whilst living right out in the sticks has been so vast and eye-opening that my original PhD questions evolved so many times just because of the adaptive strategy I took, having to change my perspective and objectives upon learning new snippets of information.
I’ve witnessed the devastation a bush fire can do to a farm at the peak of the dry season; I’ve seen the demanding and never-ending jobs that a farmer has to keep up on a daily basis in order to ensure his cattle are healthy and happy; I’ve learnt about the clandestine how’s and why’s of the omnipresent cattle theft and poaching on farms; I’ve observed the complex social structure of the farming community in Namibia and how both politics and economics play a huge role in engineering this; I’ve come to understand the different types of farmers in this country and how their values affect their actions; I’ve witnessed births and deaths on a regular basis; but most of all, I’ve come to understand that living on a farm is a tough, challenging and physically demanding job requiring you to be a jack of all trades and master of it all, but that despite this, living on a farm is free life where you can wake up every day to the sounds of birds and open your windows to see herds of kudu run across the fields, learn about the plants and animals like many do not have the opportunity to do, be your own boss, see the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets anywhere on earth and then go to bed at night gazing up to the Milky Way where the stars appear infinite.
It has not been an easy journey, but I’ve enjoyed every minute of this wild and wonderful ride out in the depths of rural Africa.
|Farm worker's kids look on to watch the cattle guys herd livestock beyond their house|