Investigating the diet selection and genetic variation of small ruminants in a dryland pastoral system in South Africa
MetadataShow full item record
Small ruminants found in pastoral dryland systems face many challenges regarding constant environmental and climate changes. These variable environments are home to many pastoralists who use the natural resources to sustain their livestock. Due to the prevailing environmental changes, these pastoralists require various adaptation strategies for the survival of their small ruminants. Adaptation is vital for all pastoralists globally, especially those living in semi-arid to arid regions as these areas are badly impacted by climate change. Farming with small ruminants that are able to constantly adapt to variable environments are a long-term and low cost resource strategy for farmers in these areas. Drought is a recurring challenge that farmers in dryland systems have to cope with and small ruminants are forced to adapt to food and water available to them as drought affects their survival, reproduction and production. This is because drought affects the environment directly as rainfall has an impact on all forage and water resources found in drylands. Thus available forage and the utilisation of this resource by small ruminants is essential for sheep and goat farmers who depend on these animals for their livelihoods. This thesis sets out to establish sheep and goat breeds found in a dryland pastoral system in South Africa focussing on their genetic differences and their diet selection during a drought period. The study was carried out in the 582 634 ha Steinkopf communal area located in the semi-arid to arid region of Namaqualand in South Africa. The dominant land use in this area is livestock farming where farmers utilise two biomes for grazing. Using mitochondrial DNA, genetic differences were investigated in small ruminants found in Steinkopf. The small ruminants that were studied were the Boer goats, Swakara sheep (Karakul) and cross-bred sheep. These were the most commonly farmed small ruminants in this area. Genetic differences and diversity found within the small ruminants in this area supports their ability to adapt to drought and changing environments. Diet selection of these small ruminants were assessed using direct forage observation during this drought period in both the Succulent and Nama Karoo biomes. Findings of the study indicate that small ruminants during a drought period will largely forage on what is available to them. Boer goats changed their diets from browser to grazers in the different biomes while sheep remained grazers in both biomes. This suggests that these animals are well adapted to changing forage availability and will adjust their feeding behaviours accordingly. Succulent plant species were utilised by all small ruminants and this can be regarded as new knowledge for small ruminants in dryland systems. Succulent species play a role in the diets of small ruminants in the Steinkopf rangeland and these animals have adapted traits that allow them to eat plants that contain high levels of phenolics and tannins, which show their high adaptability to this area. This study also revealed that indigenous and locally bred sheep in this area are crucial resources for livestock farming in this area. Swakara sheep in this area showed a low level of genetic variation while cross-bred sheep and the Boer goat had significant variation. With a long tradition of breeding small ruminants in the Steinkopf communal area that suit changing conditions, livestock keepers have accumulated detailed knowledge of their animals. Recommendations from this study were to do further studies regarding genetic variation within the cross-bred sheep as this information will be useful for breeding programs in dryland areas and it will add to the small ruminant genetics in South Africa. Because this study was conducted in a drought period, I recommend that diet selection should be observed during a regular wet and dry period as this would indicate how these animals adapt to what forage is available to them. These studies can act as management strategies for herders as it can provide information on how to use the natural resources sustainably.