Counting sheep as the big chill hits the Cape

Heavy snow such as the recent falls in the North-Eastern Cape makes life unpleasant for sheep, but being trapped in the open doesn’t necessarily mean frozen mutton.

According to Clive Cronje, a farmer in the mountains between Barkly East and Elliot, they can be pretty tough customers.

”I remember in the ’64 snow we had here, we found sheep after three weeks in the snow,” he said from his snowbound farm Merino Walk on Monday.

”A person wonders how they do it, when it ices and freezes like that.”

He said that in heavy falls, the animals even became completely covered, ending up in cavities under the surface of the snow.

”Sometimes underneath they are walking around. It’s like a cave,” he said. ”You look for a little hole where they’re breathing and dig them out.”

Since last Friday morning, by when it had been snowing steadily for two nights and a day and he realised that the weather was not going to improve, he and his helpers on the farm had been working flat out to save stock.

They had been battling through sometimes hip-deep snow to trapped sheep on the high hillsides, trampling pathways for those that could walk, herding them down, then going back up again to carry down on their shoulders those that could no longer use their legs.

A fully-grown sheep weighs 50kg to 60kg.

”It’s not easy, I tell you,” he said. ”My son was saying the other afternoon after he came back, ‘I’m so tired I can’t think any more’. You sleep well at night.”

Some of the sheep had been dug out of their ”caves”; others had managed to keep patches open by trampling down the snow as it fell.

Worst off were animals who had tried to cross deep snow to search for grazing, and ended up head down in the whiteness, suffocating through the pressure of their own blood.

”If you take too long to get to them, that’s what normally happens,” he said. ”Just about all those that I’ve lost have had swollen heads.”

Cronje said they were trying to move the animals down from the exposed higher ground to areas near the farm buildings, where they were easier to monitor and feed.

Those that had collapsed and were so far gone that they were unable to graze were given a gruel of mealie meal, and kept indoors until they recovered.

He said that on Monday morning he discovered two ewes that had collapsed with so-called ”pregnancy disease”, the result of exhausting the resources of their own starved bodies in a bid to keep their unborn lambs alive.

Feeding with glycerine, sugar or molasses usually got them back on their feet.

”Otherwise they haven’t got enough energy and they end up dying. Of all the sheep they are the most vulnerable,” he said.

The lambing season starts in August.

Cronje said he knew he had already lost ”a couple” of sheep and one head of cattle, but even though he had not yet been able to reach all parts of his farm, he was likely to be one of the luckier farmers in the area.

”At least we’ve got our sheep out,” he said. ”Some of my neighbours haven’t seen their sheep yet because the snow’s so deep.”

He himself had had no word yet from another property in the Elliot district where he kept cattle, and was hoping that ”somehow or other they’re surviving”.

”There’s going to be big losses by some people I’m quite sure,” he said.

But the falls on his farm did not match the winter of 1964. ”By far, it was much worse,” he said.

”This year the fences weren’t all covered up. That year, you couldn’t even see the fences.” – Sapa

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Ben Maclennan
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