Introduction

South Africa has a variety of genetically diverse breeds of livestock that have played a major role in the social, cultural and economic history of the country. These include breeds of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, poultry and equines that have adapted over centuries to a range of natural and socio cultural environments.

Goats and sheep were introduced between 200 and 400 AD when the Khoi-Khoi people settled in South Africa. One of the oldest sheep breeds in South Africa is the Namakwa Afrikaner sheep, that was kept in the north westerns parts of the Cape and southern Namibia by the Nama people. Archaeological evidence indicates by 700 AD there were both Zebu and Taurine cattle present in Africa and evidence suggest that Sanga cattle came to Southern Africa with their nomadic owners between 600 and 700 AD. The introduction of the domesticated chicken to Africa and South Africa is not well documented. Faunal samples have shown that fowls were associated with Early Iron Age communities (ca. 1000 BC) in southern Africa (Plug, 1996). Various domesticated chicken breeds were introduced from Europe during the era of African colonization, leading to extensive mixing of local and domesticated chicken populations.

Over the past 400 years, a number of exotic cattle, sheep and pig breeds have been imported to South Africa and used in livestock production systems in the region. Exotic breeds have been used with indigenous breeds to develop composite breeds that are well adapted and highly productive in various South African production environments. Some indigenous breeds in South Africa are well established such as the Nguni cattle breed, while some sheep breeds such as the Namakwa Afrikaner are on the list for endangered breeds. It is therefore extremely important that strategies be in place to maintain and conserve indigenous populations where required. Indiscriminate crossbreeding must be avoided to ensure long term sustainability of both indigenous and composites developed for South African systems.

The value of indigenous livestock

During their protracted journey from the north of the continent, the livestock adapted to a variety of biomes. Most of the areas had periodic droughts, seasonal dry periods, nutritional shortages and an array of parasites and diseases. Adaptation to these conditions made the animals hardy and well suited to the harsh South African environment where they can survive without additional feed or medication. These traits are important for sustainable livestock production and make them a viable alternative to imported breeds in the more challenging climatic conditions of Southern Africa. In addition, parasites and diseases are showing an increasing resistance to drugs which makes the natural tolerance of indigenous breeds all the more valuable.

The perception problem

The smaller frame and lack of uniform colour of indigenous livestock breeds led the colonial settlers of South Africa to believe that indigenous breeds were inferior when compared to European breeds. Recent scientific evaluations of indigenous livestock has shown that, far from being inferior, the animals produce more than exotic breeds under the low maintenance conditions that are typically found in the marginal areas of the country.

Conservation through sustainable use

Conservation has never been effective where people are hungry. This has made it difficult to protect small nucleus herds and flocks in order to maintain purebred indigenous livestock breeds. A recent conservation approach is one of sustainable use that includes the commercialisation of indigenous breeds and the marketing of products such as hides and meat in niche markets. In South Africa, this strategy has proved successful with breeds such as the Nguni, Afrikaner and Drakensberger cattle, the Dorper sheep and the Boer goat. The establishment of markets and the development of products for indigenous livestock has the potential to mushroom in the future.

Breeds of indigenous and locally developed (Landrace) livestock

2.1 Beef cattle

In South Africa both Zebu and Taurus breeds are present that can be classified into the following groups: Bos taurus (e.g. Angus, Hereford and Holstein), Bos indicus (e.g. Brahman), Sanga (e.g. Afrikaner and Nguni), those of unclear origins (e.g. Drakensberger) and locally developed composite breeds (e.g. Bonsmara, Afrism and Brangus).

The indigenous and locally developed cattle are well adapted to the South African environment and known for their ability to adapt to regions with high temperatures and humidity and changes in the availability of feed. They can tolerate heat, drought, and an array of parasites and tick borne diseases.

In traditional extensive systems, cattle are used for beef, milk and hide production, as a form of security, for religious ceremonies and as fuel and floor covering. In table 1 a summary is provided of the oldest indigenous and locally developed composite beef breeds. More recently other composites have been established by crossing these breeds with exotic breeds, for e.g Nguni with a Pinzgauer resulting in a Pinzyl or Brahman with Hereford (Braford) or Angus (Brangus).

Table 1 Indigenous and locally developed South African composite beef breeds

Breed Ecotype/Composition Phenotypic characteristics Maturity type
Nguni Venda, Pedi, Makathini/Zulu, Tswana & Shangaan

Small frame, mostly horned,

Unique colour patterns with white and black/red,

Black muzzle

Early maturing type
Afrikaner Sanga Medium frame, red coat colour, large horns Early maturing type
Drakensbergers Origin unclear – developed from local cattle in Cape also to referred to as Uys cattle

Large frame, black in colour,

Horns and scurs/ polled

Medium to late maturing
SA Bonsmara  5/8 Afrikaner and 3/8 Hereford & Milk Shorthorn

Medium to large frame,

Red colour, horns and scurs/polled

Medium to late maturing
Tuli Originally from Zimbabwe

Medium to large frame, yellowish red coat

Mostly polled

Medium to late maturing

 2.2 Sheep and goats

There are a number of sheep breeds in South Africa that include wool sheep, dual-purpose breeds and mutton breeds. Most of the original indigenous sheep breeds have been neglected as pure breeds and breeds such as the Namakwa Afrikaner and Ronderib Afrikaner risk extinction with less than 1000 breeding animals left in South Africa. Composite breeds developed in South Africa such as the SA Dorper, Dormer and the indigenous Damara sheep are, however, in high demand due to their adaptive traits and high quality mutton. Wool type sheep developed in South Africa include the Dohne-Merino that does well in sour veld regions, the SA Mutton Merino and Afrino. The wool types are dual-purpose and used for wool and mutton production.

South Africa has a large population of indigenous goats as well as the improved SA Boer goat, Kalahari Red and Savanna goat that are used for commercial meat production. Due to their browsing abilities they adapt well to regions with a large bush component e.g. areas in Limpopo, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Indigenous goats are primarily used for meat and in some cases milk is used for house hold consumption. Sheep and goats are also used as a form of financial security and important for cultural and social events. In table 2 a summary is provided of indigenous and locally developed sheep and goat breeds in South Africa.

Table 2 Indigenous and locally developed South African composite sheep and goat breeds

Species Breed/ecotype Main purpose/aim
Sheep: Izimvu (Zulu), Namaqua Afrikaner, Pedi, Persian (Blackhead or Redhead), Ronderrib Afrikaner (gladde- or Blinkhaar), Ronderrib Afrikaner (steekhaar), Speckled Persian (Black or Red), Vandor and Van Rooy Indigenous types for mutton Low population numbers Risk of extinction
Dorper, Dormer, Damara Mutton, commercial production
Dohne-Merino, South African Mutton-Merino, Afrino Wool-mutton, Mutton-wool, Wool-mutton
Goats Improved Boer Goat, Kalahari Red Goat, Savanna Goat Meat production in commercial systems
 Unimproved Veld goat  Meat, hide and milk, communal systems

Purebred indigenous pig breeds are limited to the Kolbroek and the Windsnyer and both breeds are becoming increasingly scarce due to crossbreeding with commercialised lines. The same is true of chicken breeds, except that there is a larger variety available and conservation programmes have been undertaken to preserve these lines. Indigenous chickens of South Africa include the Boschvelder, Naked Neck, Ovambo, Potchefstroom Koekoek and the Lebowa-Venda. In South Africa the village chicken plays an important role in food security and forms part of research efforts into their characteristics and production potential for low-input systems. Both poultry and pigs have the potential of being exploited for commercial production but only very limited research has taken place and the possibilities remain to be explored.

The South African Black Ostrich is also a locally developed breed.

South Africa has a variety of local horse breeds that include the Basotho pony, Kaapse Boerperd (Cape Boer Horse), Namib Horse, Nooitgedachter, South African Boerperd.

Local business environment

Global concern on the loss of diversity of farm animal genetic resources, along with a growing awareness of the real value of adapted minimum care breeds for sustainable animal agriculture off natural vegetation, has led to the emergence of a world market for these breeds.

A tremendous potential lies in the development of livestock products. Examples are the hide of the attractively patterned Nguni cattle, the fine glove leather of the indigenous sheep and goat breeds and branded organic meat products. Even the lowly Kolbroek pig found in the rural areas has potential for lard and pork production in a country that is a net importer of lard.

Innovative marketing and the investigation of niche markets will develop this potential. Here assistance is required from the government and/or industry. Products from indigenous breeds would also allow poor communities to exploit a gap in the market.

The raising of public awareness is of crucial concern in any management plan for the utilisation of indigenous livestock breeds. The breeds are useful and constitute a valuable contribution to the biodiversity of the country.

  • The Nguni Cattle Development Project is being judged a success in the seven provinces in which it is being run. In each of the provinces, the department of agriculture works with a university which provides management, handles the administrative work and provides technical support. The Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) is the other major partner in the project.
  • To be eligible, would-be farmers must have fenced land with sufficient grazing, water and carrying capacity for at least 60 cattle. Once accepted the farmer receives a loan of Nguni cattle, all of which have been immunised against tuberculosis and heart water. With the support of a full-time project manager, they are then given five years to grow the herd. After this time, repayment is made to the board of trustees in the form of young Nguni cattle, which go to new beneficiaries. In this way, the project empowers more upcoming farmers.
  • Beneficiaries of the Project won several awards in the 2015 Agricultural Research Council (ARC) National Beef Performers Awards.

National strategy and government contact

Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF) www.daff.gov.za

  • Directorate: Animal Production Tel: 012 319 7493 / 7597
  • National Co-ordinator of Farm Animal Genetic Resources Tel: 012 319 7448 keithr [at] daff.gov.za

Directorate Genetic Resources Farm Animal Genetic Resources (FAnGR) Tel: 012 319 6233

Role players

  • Africanis Society of Southern Africa www.africanis.co.za  ‘Africanis’ is an umbrella name for the aboriginal or native subequatorial African dogs. The Africanis Society of Southern Africa has made it its goal to ‘conserve’ the Africanis or native African dog as a ‘land race’.
  • The Agricultural Research Council at Irene has been involved with indigenous and locally developed breeds for many years. It provides farmers, large and small, with the technologies and information to help them feed the nation. They provide research as well as training courses. (1) Dr M Scholtz (Nguni Cattle specialist) Tel: 012 672 9119 gscholtz [at] arc.agric.za (2) Leon Kruger (Small stock specialist) Tel: 012 672 9169 lkruger [at] arc.agric.za. Research has been going into the possibility of probiotic bacteria found in indigenous pigs being able to do the work of antibiotics. This would be a boost for the country’s pork sector.
  • Dumela Poultry Solutions Jan Grobbelaar – 084 567 8975 jan [at] reveal.co.za
  • Grootfontein Agricultural Development Institute Dr M A Snyman Tel: 049 842 1113 http://gadi.agric.za
  • Indigenous Veld Goats Society Tel: 054 891 0058 www.indigenousveldgoats.co.za
  • Land Bank Tel: 012 686 0500 www.landbank.co.za A partner, along with the University of Zululand, of an indigenous sheep breeding project in KwaZulu-Natal.
  • Nguni Cattle Breeders Society Tel: 051 448 7303 www.ngunicattle.info Nguni cattle, long the mainstay of Zulu culture, are possibly the most beautiful cattle in the world, with their variously patterned and multicoloured hides everywhere in demand. There are other advantages too. The small-frame is easier to maintain and reaches carcass maturity sooner. The breed is “widely acknowledged to be the outstanding beef breed for optimal production under harsh African conditions”. View their promotion here.
  • Provincial Departments of Agriculture are involved with Nguni cattle and indigenous livestock. Sometimes training is also offered. For example, see www.kzndard.gov.za/short-courses.
  • South African Society of Animal Science (SASAS) Secretary: Prof JB Van Ryssen www.sasas.co.za
  • SA Stud Book Association Tel: 051 410 0900 www.sastudbook.co.za SA Studbook is responsible for animal recording (records of the pedigrees and performance) of registered livestock and has the mandate of granting membership to breeders’ societies. It is through Studbook that indigenous breeds such as the Nguni have been registered and commercialised.
  • Stellenbosch University Department of Animal Science Tel: 021 808 4740 kdzama [at] sun.ac.za www.sun.ac.za/animal
  • University of Fort Hare Dr Voster Muchenje Tel: 040 602 2059 vmuchenje [at] ufh.ac.za www.ufh.ac.za  Results of research into Ngunis have been published in the world’s leading animal production, animal health and food science journals.
  • University of the Free State (1) Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Rural Development and Extension Tel: 051 401 3765 GroeneI [at] ufs.ac.za www.ufs.ac.za/censard (2) Department of Animal, Wildlife and Grassland Sciences Prof HO de Waal – 051 401 2210 Mr Willie Combrinck – 051 401 2382 www.ufs.ac.za/animal  (3) Department of Zoology and Entomology Prof JG van As – 051 401 2427 Prof S Louw – 051 401 9219 (4) Paradys Experimental Farm Tel: 051 443 9011
  • University of Zululand Department of Agriculture Dr M Sibanda Tel: 035 902 6065 / 3 www.uzulu.ac.za
  • University of Pretoria Prof E van Marle-Köster Department of Animal & Wildlife Sciences Tel: 012 420 3612 www.up.ac.za
  • Village Tourism Trust Tel: 015 276 4807 / 083 255 9448 vavasour [at] mweb.co.za Plans to establish an educational  “model farm” stocked with indigenous breeds.
  • Wickedfood Earth Tel: 072 548 8814 www.wickedfoodearth.co.za
  • Willem Prinsloo Agricultural Museum Tel: 012 736 2035 / 076 054 5229 www.ditsong.org.za/willemprinsloo.htm A historic farmhouse shows indigenous farm animals like Nguni and Afrikaner cattle, Colebrook pigs, Painted Persian sheep and indigenous chickens.

Find details of the following breeder’s societies at www.sastudbook.co.za or in the “Animal Improvement and breeders” chapter.

  • Afrikaner Cattle Breeders’ Society of SA
  • Afrino Sheep Breeders’ Society of SA
  • Bonsmara SA
  • Damara Sheep Breeders’ Society of SA
  • Dohné Sheep Breeders’ Society of SA
  • Dormer Sheep Breeders’ society of SA
  • Dorper sheep Breeders’ Society
  • Drakensberger Cattle Breeders Society
  • Kalahari Red
  • Namaqua Afrikaner c/o Grootfontein Small Stock Institute
  • Nguni Cattle Breeders Association
  • Pedi Club of SA
  • SA Boer Goat Breeders’ Society
  • Savanna Goat Breeders’ Society of SA
  • Tuli Cattle Breeders’ Society of SA
  • Vandor Sheep Breeders’ Society
  • The Van Rooy Sheep Breeders’ Society

Websites and publications

  • Landrace breeds: South Africa’s Indigenous and Locally developed Farm Animals. Compiled and edited by: K Ramsay, L Harris & A Kotzé. Published by: Farm Animal Conservation Trust. ISBN 0-620-25493-9. This publication combines information on the origin of breeds, general descriptions, outstanding qualities and performance data.
  • Publications at www.kzndard.gov.za include Imvu – the indigenous sheep of KwaZulu-Natal: A Zulu Heritage.
  • The Indigenous Sheep and Goat Breeds of South Africa. Quentin Campbell. Published by Dreyer Printers and Publishers. Available from ARC-Animal Production.
  • Van Marle-Köster, E., Visser, C., Qwabe, S.O. & Snyman, M.A. 2013. “Case study: Saving the endangered Namaqua Afrikaner sheep breed through conservation and utlilization”. In Ruane, J. et al (eds) Biotechnologies at Work for Smallholders: Case Studies from Developing Countries in Crops, Livestock and Fish. FAO: Rome.
  • Commercialisation of indigenous goat production and products in South Africa. Edited: M Roets. Published by the Advisory Bureau for Development (Pty) Ltd.
  • Contact Afrivet for a copy of Nguni Cattle: Breed Characteristics and Functional Efficiency. The book was written by Dr Hans van de Pypekamp and is also available in Afrikaans. Find the “Knowledge Centre” option at www.afrivet.co.za.
  • The Story of the African Dog University of KwaZulu-Natal Press ISBN 1-86914-024-9.
  • About 1 000 of the 6 400 recognised breeds of farm animals worldwide became extinct during the last 100 years, and 300 of these alone during the last two decades or so! The Food and Agriculture Organisation warns that another 2000 breeds are at stake if no countermeasures for their conservation are taken. Find the Data base: Domesticated Animal Diversity Information Systemhttp://dad.fao.org
  • Several Info Paks are available on indigenous breeds. Visit http://gadi.agric.za and www.daff.gov.za (look under “Resource Centre”)
  • Breeds of Livestockwww.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds
  • RBI (Rare Breeds International) – www.rarebreedsinternational.org

Sources for this chapter: Keith Ramsay (DAFF), Jenny Bester (previously ARC) and Prof E van Marle-Koster (University of Pretoria). Our grateful thanks to Prof E van Marle-Koster (University of Pretoria) for her reading through the draft chapter and supplementing it with additional material.

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