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
|Venda, Pedi, Makathini/Zulu, Tswana & Shangaan
|Small frame, mostly horned,
Unique colour patterns with white and black/red,
|Early maturing type
|Medium frame, red coat colour, large horns
|Early maturing type
|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
|5/8 Afrikaner and 3/8 Hereford & Milk Shorthorn
|Medium to large frame,
Red colour, horns and scurs/polled
|Medium to late maturing
|Originally from Zimbabwe
|Medium to large frame, yellowish red coat
|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
|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
|Improved Boer Goat, Kalahari Red Goat, Savanna Goat
|Meat production in commercial systems
|Unimproved Veld goat
|Meat, hide and milk, communal systems
2.3 Other species
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.
National strategy and government contact
The Nguni Cattle Development Project has been 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.
Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) www.dalrrd.gov.za
On the website find information and contact details for the following directorates:
- Directorate: Animal Production
- National Co-ordinator of Farm Animal Genetic Resources
- Directorate Genetic Resources Farm Animal Genetic Resources (FAnGR)
- 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.
- Find details of the following breeder’s societies at https://studbook.co.za or on the “Animal Improvement and breeders” page:
- 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.
- Roets, M. (Ed.). 1998. Commercialisation of indigenous goat production and products in South Africa. Pretoria: Advisory Bureau for Development.
- 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 System – http://dad.fao.org
- Several Info Paks are available on indigenous breeds. Visit http://gadi.agric.za and www.dalrrd.gov.za (look under “Resource Centre”)
- Breeds of Livestock – www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds
- RBI (Rare Breeds International) – www.rarebreedsinternational.org
- Coleman A. 2022, October 24. “Eastern Cape indigenous veld goat project gets off the ground”. Farmer’s Weekly. Available at www.farmersweekly.co.za/agri-news/south-africa/eastern-cape-indigenous-veld-goat-project-gets-off-the-ground/
- Coleman A. 2022, September 27. “Indigenous veld goats: the ideal option for extreme conditions”. Farmer’s Weekly. Available at www.farmersweekly.co.za/animals/sheep-and-goats/indigenous-veld-goats-the-ideal-option-for-extreme-conditions/
- Kruger, C. 2019, January 18. “Die 2018-19-somer is die warmste in 30 jaar, sê LNR” [The 2018-19 summer was the hottest in 30 years, says the ARC]. Landbouweekblad. Available at www.netwerk24.com/landbou/Nuus/die-2018-19-somer-is-die-warmste-in-30-jaar-se-lnr-20190117 [In the article, Prof Michiel Scholtz shows that Indigenous cattle lose less weight in heat conditions than exotic breeds]
- Burgess, M. 2018, July 5. “Profiting from indigenous livestock”. Farmer’s Weekly. Available at www.farmersweekly.co.za/animals/cattle/profiting-indigenous-livestock/
- Dean, S. 2017, December 28. “Nguni development project pays off for Limpopo”. Farmer’s Weekly. Available at www.farmersweekly.co.za/agri-news/south-africa/nguni-development-project-pays-off-limpopo/
Sources for this page: Keith Ramsay (Ramsay Animal Agriculture), Jenny Bester 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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