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Game Farming

Considerations for Game Farming in the Vanwyksdorp Area

Many people enthusiastically believe that a successful game farming enterprise can be simply kick-started by fencing an area and then introducing whatever animals are available, and affordable, into the area. 

Game farming is, in fact, rather like a dance with very intricate footwork, if you do not know the steps – you will not be able to dance.  If you try to make up the steps as you go along, you will never be a very good dancer.  

In truth, a successful game farming operation requires and involves a great deal more than a fence and animals.  Long-term success (profitability) lies in the careful ecological and economic initial evaluation of any property with potential for game farming and a hands-on ecological approach. 

Although there can be a number of very different approaches to game farming, the principles on which a successful operation must be based generally remain much the same.  Briefly summarized, these principles can be grouped as careful ecological evaluation, good planning, informed implementation and regular monitoring.  These principles should be developed as the backbone of a management plan that will guide the game farming operation. 

Ecological evaluation involves an expert assessment of the geology and soils, topography, vegetation, water and climate of the game farm area.  The most important part of this evaluation is to determine what the cumulative effects of land management history are.  These usually manifest themselves as soil erosion, the loss of productive grazing and browsing, infestation by invasive alien plants and habitat modification as a result of cultivation, too frequent fires and historical overutilization with livestock. 

The determination of habitat condition is thus critical and often presents a very different picture to that of a vegetation map.  The relationship between habitat condition, the efforts needed to rehabilitate the habitat and the ultimate potential of the property for game farming are often not clearly understood.  The potential for game is often given as a fixed value for an area, rather than a site-specific value based on local conditions.  Habitat deterioration of any kind invariably results in a significant reduction in game farming potential. 

The results of the ecological evaluation should then be used to guide rehabilitation efforts and game farm planning.  The determination of suitable species for game farming requires the careful matching of animal type to habitat type (eg: browsing game will work best in thicket or bushveld habitats) while also taking into consideration the need for habitat rehabilitation.  The best guide to suitable species is to introduce species that historically occurred in the area and for which the habitat is still suitable.  The introduction of extralimital game, or species alien to the area, can be risky because the animals may not be specifically adapted to local conditions or may be restricted by them, resulting in poor quality nutrition and ultimately poor reproduction.  

The determination of ecological capacity (commonly known as carrying capacity) must also be carefully moderated by the impact that the different animals have on their habitat and the condition of each of the habitat types.  The ecological capacity of the vegetation must also be determined with long-term sustainability in mind.  Each of the individual habitat types on a particular property needs to be investigated separately, an aspect that is often neglected when a blanket ecological capacity is used to determine the stocking rates for a farm.  The ecological capacity should also be reviewed on an annual basis.  This is because vegetation changes may occur in response to rainfall variation from year to year, resulting in changes in palatable grass and shrub availability, affecting the sustainable availability of food for the game. 

The impact that herbivorous animals have on their habitat and, indirectly on each other, also requires consideration and careful evaluation.  The development of this impact is clearly observable but it should be recorded by means of an objective monitoring system.  Active veld monitoring records conditions at regular intervals so that one need not rely on memory when a determination of veld condition is made.  Veld change under the impact of herbivory can be subtle and gradual and may go unnoticed if one is not able to objectively compare current conditions to past conditions. One’s memory is simply not a reliable way of keeping tabs on veld condition from year to year. The accurate estimation of veld condition in terms of animal numbers is critical not only for the economic success of the game farm but also for the long term protection of the veld resource. 

Providing water for wildlife needs to be planned with the ecology of the animals as well as habitat impact in mind.  The spread of water must avoid the formation of damaging piospheres and extensive networks of animal paths to water.  The provision of water should be coordinated with veld rehabilitation requirements as well as the water dependence of the animals on the property.  It is important to appreciate that an open wildlife system is very different to an intensive stock farm watering system in camps.   

The conditions in nature change continuously, which means that the approach to game farming must also be dynamic.  Rainfall patterns vary from year to year, vegetation follows suite and so must the response of animals to the condition of their habitat.  Game farms are artificially restricted by fences into property units, which are generally much smaller than the original wildlife/habitat systems that were in place 500 years ago.  A dynamic approach to all aspects of game farming is thus required, but it should be based on careful observation, good planning, adaptive management and the principle of long-term sustainability.  One is thus actually farming the habitat, rather than the wildlife species that use it.

The size of the property is also a critical initial consideration.  Smaller areas generally require more intensive management and more clearly defined objectives.  Animal numbers on smaller properties are restrictive, often consisting of only a few individuals, which has been shown to eventually lead to social, behavioural and genetic problems in the long term.  Overcoming some of these problems is possible, but intense manipulation and semi-domestication comes at a much higher price and the potential for habitat degradation is greater.

Van Wyksdorp Institute Van Wyksdorp Institute

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