Sunday, November 30, 2008

Life in Karoo Country... or, Time won’t always tell

- Elizabeth Storey-

When you have trouble falling asleep, have you ever tried the age-old remedy of counting sheep? The ones you would probably conjure up are gentle creatures with snowy white fluffy fleeces, happily gambolling about and leaping effortlessly over a low fence. A very far cry from the ones we farm!

Ours are “Damaras,” an ancient breed of fat-tailed sheep originally from the Middle East; semi-wild, well adapted to desert conditions, and wilfully wily. Not an easily spotted white/cream/beige, they are principally coloured to match the eighteen shades of brown that are the normal palate of our landscape after two years of drought. Locating the flock is such a problem that I have nicknamed our farm: “If-you-can-FIND-them-Fontein.”

Camouflage is one of Nature’s most interesting and advantageous characteristics for an organism. Mostly, it helps to minimize the chances of becoming someone else’s lunch. In other instances, it aids in acquiring lunch.

One of my least favorite examples of pernicious camouflage is the little crab spider, Thomisus onustus, which feeds on honey bees (I have no bias against spiders per se, but you can understand my prejudice in favour of bees!) This arachnid has the ability to perfectly match the colour of any flower in which it hides, awaiting the unsuspecting and unseeing nectar gatherer. In a pink blossom, it will be pink; the same spider, moving amongst the flora, in a yellow bloom will instantly turn into an impossible-to-detect identical golden yellow.

Damaras can be purposefully colour-bred as the rams most often ‘throw’ their dominant shade and pattern. Similar to the beautiful Nguni, Damaras can have splattered and splotched patches on their hides and, if one is lucky, a pure white one will occasionally turn up. Lack of pigment is a decided disadvantage under the desert sun but it is a great aid in sighting the flock against a backdrop of blending browns.

Wanting to vary the colour-gene pool of our stock, my husband took his two young apprentice shepherds with him to buy new rams at a breeder’s farm in the Free State. Petra’s camps are huge and he too has the challenge of finding the flock. His manager, Johannes, a very elderly and experienced shepherd, rode on the back of the bakkie with our two novices where they would have the best viewing position. The search took a long time; finally, Johannes cried out: “DAMARAS, ELEVEN O’CLOCK!” Petra swung sharply left and quickly found the reticent rams behind a near koppie. Christian and Nick were deeply impressed with Johannes’ prowess!

Returning to Leeu-Gamka, the first order of business was to join the two new breeders with our own small ram group. Being only six in number, these are even more difficult to locate than the ladies. Again, the two young men stood up just behind the bakkie’s cab, eagerly scanning the horizon, but the search seemed interminable.

Peter is a farmer of great forbearance but his patience was fast fraying when finally, the cry ‘DAMARAS, ELEVEN O’CLOCK” burst forth from the back of the bakkie. Peter veered left in eager anticipation. Not a single critter in view after many minutes and more kilometres. Peter was sorely perplexed but the young men were adamant: they had spotted the elusive sheep and so too had rightly uttered the appropriate rallying cry.

The prudent plan was to make the long journey back to the original sighting spot. Joining Christian and Nick on the flatbed, this time the two combined pointings with their protestations so that Peter realized their gestures were actually toward SEVEN rather than ELEVEN! Living in an Eskom-free world where ‘time’ is a function of available daylight, our young helpers understandably have no familiarity with a clock-face!

A large wall mounted clock currently graces the staff room. After a few lessons, accompanied by (and apologies to Bill Haley) my adapted lyrics of “Rams Around the Clock”, Christian and Nick are now well versed in telling time. And, with a little reproductive luck, we will have a whole new crop of highly visible white Spring lambs.

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