CATTLE AND A DELIGHTFUL SURPRISE

We have got to know various members of the Urban Herd quite well over the years and have even named the more familiar among them. Before I return to them let me introduce you to an interesting South African breed of cattle called Bonsmara. Here are a few on a cattle farm in the Lothians area.

These reddish-looking cattle are the result of an extensive scientific breeding programme conducted by Professor Jan Bonsma from the Department of Agriculture to produce cattle that are well adapted to a sub-tropical climate; that will calve every year; and will produce good quality beef. The name is a combination of the name of the professor and ‘Mara’, the experimental farm on which they were bred. They animals have the attributes of both Bos indicus and Bos Taurus. Why this should make any difference I don’t know, but in order to conform to breed standards these cattle have to be de-horned!

Back to the Urban Herd. Look at the lovely shape of the horns on a cow we call The Master Hooter.

There are some interesting aspects about her, one of which you may have noticed is that, apart from an identifying notch in her ear, there is also a hole. Perhaps too many other cows have simple notches, although the pattern on the hide of this one is distinctive.

The other is that at some stage she lost the tuft at the end of her tail. The Urban Herd wander all over town and beyond, so who knows – it may have been grabbed by a dog or caught in a fence …

At this stage she and her companions are grazing along the road of our ‘industrial area’ on the edge of town. Behind her is a calf, sired no doubt by the Arctic Bull – who has sowed his wild oats across many of the Urban Herd cows!

Wait! Did you spot something interesting on the back of that calf? It looks equally interested and I felt ecstatic:

Red-billed Oxpeckers! How very exciting it is to spot these so close to home!

Cattle Egrets are the more usual companions of the Urban Herd, wherever they happen to wander.

Lastly, here is The Master Hooter’s Sister:

LOOKING AT GIRAFFES

Giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) count among my favourite animals in the wild. You would think that their long legs and necks would make them stand out yet, despite them being the world’s tallest mammals, they can easily ‘disappear’ into their environment.

They prefer to inhabit open woodland and wooded grassland, although have also adapted to the desert conditions in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, for example.

When you spot a single giraffe, do take a careful look around for they often occur in small groups.

Naturally enough, their height allows giraffe to browse on leaves and pods above the range of ‘normal’ browsers.

The long prehensile tongue is used to pull food into the mouth which is then stripped from the stems with spatulate incisor teeth. They are exclusively browsers, with most of their feeding confined to the foliage of bushes and trees. Like cows, giraffes spend some time regurgitating their food and chewing the cud.

As you can imagine, it is not easy for a giraffe to drink water. In order to reach the water, they have to spread their legs and bend down in an awkward position that makes them vulnerable to predators such as lions.

Fortunately, giraffes satisfy most of their water needs from the plants they eat and so they do not need to drink water every day.  Giraffes have elastic blood vessels and uniquely adapted valves that help to offset the sudden build-up of blood when their heads are raised, lowered, or swung quickly – as when drinking or fighting.

Both male and female giraffes sport skin-covered knobs (ossicones) on their heads. Female ossicones have a small tuft of fur on top, while male ossicones are bald. These knobs protect the head when males indulge in a ritualized form of fighting known as ‘necking’.

This involves swinging their necks at each other in a show of strength and is carried out during the time a female is in oestrus. They also intertwine their necks, which, to the casual observer, looks like a courtship ritual.

ELEGANT ELEPHANT

There must be few visitors who remain unmoved at the sight of an elephant in the wild.

This one has already spent time in the relatively shallow waterhole – see the dark areas on its front legs are higher than those on the back. The darker shade of the trunk shows that it too is still damp from having been in the water. Notice how flat its feet are. This is because there is a large pad of gristle under each heel. Given their size, it is incredible how quietly and elephant can walk – there is hardly a sound in their wake.

African elephants (Loxodonta africana) have four toes on their front feet and three toes on their hind feet. Think of the enormous weight these feet must support. That subcutaneous cushion plays an important role in distributing forces during weight bearing as well as acting as a shock absorber. The photograph above illustrates the angled foot structure which causes elephants to actually walk on their tiptoes while their body weight is evenly distributed across the fatty/connective tissue at the heel.

One of the most interesting aspects of elephants is their trunk, which is really an extension of its upper lip and nose.

An elephant’s trunk has multiple uses such as the obvious ones of breathing, drinking, and grasping their food. If you observe elephants for a while, you will notice they also use their trunks to dust themselves, splash mud over themselves, to smell – it fulfills an important sensory function – as well as producing sound. With all these functions and more, there comes a time when the trunk needs to rest.

THREE HUNDRED DAYS

Three hundred days …

Yes … it is 300 days since we lost our freedom to go where we want to and when we want to; since we had to cut face-to-face ties with family and friends and never quite renew them properly; since we last saw facial expressions and now have to rely on eyes to convey emotions when out in public. Three hundred days with more to come …

THICK DARK MUD

Regular readers do not get excited for it hasn’t rained enough here to soak the ground, let alone form rivulets and mud. Yet, the thickest, darkest, stickiest mud I have seen for a long time was evident at the Ghwarrie waterhole in the Addo Elephant National Park – where it hasn’t rained much either. Look at this family of elephants churning up the mud on the edge of the waterhole as they move forward to get to the clear water to drink.

One of them clearly desired a mud bath and spent some time squirting this thick, sloshy black mud over itself.

The results of this mud flinging can clearly be seen as they turn to move away from the water.

Some of the elephants looked as though they were wearing dark boots as they made their way along the edge of the waterhole to seek food further afield. Then I looked down at a strange dark object nearby.

On closer inspection I realised it was a terrapin!

This one had obviously decided not to burrow into the mud.