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The Damara Sheep as Adapted Sheep Breed in Southern Africa

Wolfi von Wielligh
Omatjenne Research Station, PO Box 202,
Otjiwarongo, Namibia
(E-mail: resomatj@iafrica.com.na)


Introduction

Sheep, together with Africa and its people, are part of the creation. Along the western coast of Africa there is an arid to semi-arid strip with low rainfall (0-150 mm per year). The Damara Sheep, with its typical conformation, is part of this arid African vegetation. This sheep breed is widely spread, from Mali, Côte D’Ivoire, Nigeria and Angola up to the Kunene North region in Namibia. In 1904, Germans who were exploring Namibia saw this long-legged sheep breed being reared by communal farmers. During the time of the German Government, the northern region of Namibia was called Gross Namaland and the Kunene region was known as Gross Damaland. Because they found the sheep in Gross Damaland, the Germans named it the Damara Sheep.

The Himbas and Sjimbas, communal farmers in the Kunene region, used much copper for their traditional attire. The farmers therefore exchanged Damara Sheep for copper wire and horses.

In 1954, many Damara Sheep were confiscated from commercial farmers who smuggled sheep through the Veterinary Cordon Fence, which was also known as the Red Line. The fence was erected to separate disease-free areas from infected areas. Meat and livestock could not pass freely through the fence into the southern zone, which was free of diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease and lung sickness. Smuggling through the fence was illegal and the government resettled the confiscated Damara Sheep at Omatjenne Research Station, near Otjiwarongo.

There was a need for a sheep breed to inhabit the higher rainfall (250-500 mm) area, with its bushveldt savannah grazing. The question was: could the well-adapted indigenous Damara Sheep produce quality mutton in the quantities that exotic breeds could? Attempts were made to use the genetic traits available to turn the Damara Sheep into a mutton-producing breed for the bushveld savannah area without losing its main characteristics and adaptive traits.

Results

In 1956, the average weaning mass at 100 days was 22.8 kg for ewe lambs and 24.0 kg for ram lambs. In 2000, these values had increased to 24.6 kg for ewe lambs and 28.5 kg for ram lambs. The mothering ability of this breed is exceptional (see Table 2). It has a fairly high resistance to most sheep diseases and also good tolerance to internal parasites (Table 3). The Damara Sheep needs 5.90 kg of fodder to gain 1 kg live mass. For comparison, the Boer Goat needs 4.95 kg of fodder, and the Dorper Sheep 6.35 kg. The Damara Sheep has a varied diet. It feeds on grass, bushes and shrubs and can almost be classified as a browser. Research has indicated that up to 59.9 percent of its diet can consist of browsing material.

Table 1. Fertility of the Damara Sheep with a mating season of 80 days

Year

Ewes mated

Pregnant

Pregnant (%)

Single

Twin

Total

% lambs

1994

85

68

80

64

8

72

106

1995

40

39

98

38

2

40

103

1996

122

104

85

91

26

117

113

1997

139

126

91

105

42

147

117

1998

151

144

95

131

26

157

109

Total

537

481

90

429

104

533

110

Table 2. Mothering ability of the breed


Lambs born alive

Lambs weaned

% lambs weaned

1994

71

69

81

1995

40

37

93

1996

117

115

94

1997

144

136

98

1998

156

150

99

Total

528

507

93

Table 3. Diseases and mortality of the Damara Sheep

Year

Total sheep deaths

Deaths as percentage of total in flock

No. sheep deaths caused by diseases

Sheep deaths caused by disease as percentage of total deaths

No. sheep killed by predators

No. sheep killed by predators as percentage of total deaths

1988

7

2.5

0

0

4

57

1987

7

2.3

2

29

2

29

1986

11

3.6

1

9

8

72

1985

11

5.0

1

9

6

55

1984

21

10.7

1

5

20

95

Total

57

24.1

5

9

40

70

Table 4. Growing rate of young rams under veldt conditions in natural sheep habitats. Average daily gain (ADG) of several breeds

Breed

Average daily gain (g/day)

Boer Goat

0.80

Damara Sheep

0.12

Dorper Sheep

0.11

Persian Sheep

0.10

Van Rooy Sheep

0.11

The breed can survive in a harsh environment and under poor nutritional conditions. This characteristic makes it suitable for the communal areas where extreme conditions are the norm rather than the exception. The breed is currently gaining popularity at an astonishing rate among commercial farmers. The reason is that the production potential can be exploited with very low inputs. The Damara Sheep has already established itself as a so-called "no care" breed.

Because of the breed’s good results and performance, a Breeders’ Association was established on 18 February 1986 at Omatjenne Research Station. The association advertised the breed. Five years later an association was established in South Africa. Many animals have been exported from South Africa to other African countries. The Damara Sheep is a functionally efficient animal and its good performance in South Africa has created a "snow-ball" effect. Embryos are also transferred to Australia and the breed is used as a base for a new breed called the Meat Master. The "African" sheep that was once exchanged for copper wire has become important in the sheep world for mutton production.

Because of the good results with the Damara Sheep, in 1986 the Omatjenne Research Station started to examine the potential of the Sanga (Nguni) indigenous cattle from the North-Central area of Namibia. In the research project these cattle did extremely well, and the performance of this breed is also known worldwide.

Conclusion

The valuable information gathered over the last 44 years is now benefiting the communal farmers. This is being done by supplying them with rams and bulls, by producing breeding journals and information profiles, through extension officers and by organizing meetings and courses in the rural areas for the communities. There are many indigenous animals (cattle, sheep and goats) left in the rural (communal) areas, and the farmers are now beginning to realize the value of their well-adapted, indigenous animals.


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