BROUHAHA ABOUT DONKEYS

I often refer to what I call the Urban Herd, a term loosely used to cover the numerous head of cattle that wander through the suburbs of our town to graze in open parks, on unmown grass verges as well as browsing the street trees. Woe betide you if they manage to get into your garden, for not much will be left after their visit!

Not all that many years ago it was unusual to see donkeys roaming around town. There are now, however, an increasing number of donkeys seen either on their own or in groups of between three and eight. As with the cattle, these all have owners and are collected now and then to pull a cart.

Mostly though they are left to fend for themselves. They manage for their natural diet is a varied one, consisting of grass, shrubs and leaves. Sadly, a number of donkeys have also learned to raid rubbish bins in the street and gather in large numbers on the set rubbish collection days when residents place their black bags on the pavements in the suburbs.

Recently there were several donkeys grazing in an open park.

It is natural that during this prolonged drought period, many residents have become concerned about the plight of these donkeys that are largely left to their own devices. All over town are people who place buckets or large basins of water outside their gates so that the donkeys can have access to water. A lot of people feed them carrots or apples and have taken to stroking or patting them if they can. Most donkeys are docile and respond well to this kind treatment.

According to our local Ratepayers Association, these resourceful animals are quick to identify where they are likely to find food and are prepared to walk a long distance to such locations. I met a woman battling to close her garden gate early one morning as two donkeys were doing their best to get into her garden. “I give them bunches of carrots every morning,” she told me. “They come here every morning to get carrots from me.” It is not surprising then that these particular donkeys make their way to where she lives.

This Association informs us that the owners of the donkeys – mostly from the poorer area of town – prefer their donkeys to graze on the commonage, an open grassland close to where they live. That is the official line anyway. It is difficult to believe that so many donkeys would willingly leave the natural pasture on the other side of town to wander through the suburbs where they congregate in the shade of trees. This seems like a pleasant pastoral scene you might think.

Even though most residents have learned to tolerate the periodic invasions from the Urban Herd – probably because there is no way of getting rid of the cattle – there are some who loathe the presence of donkeys. Some set their dogs on them, while others shout at them or go after them with garden rakes or brooms, sending the donkeys clip-clopping along the tarred streets until their pursuer gives up the chase. A local resident complained that donkeys had ‘devoured’ all his vegetables (did he leave his gate open?), while another complained that “donkeys also pee prodigiously”. To emphasise his point he commented that he was about to lodge a complaint about a blocked sewage pipe near his home “when I realised I was looking at, and smelling, a fresh donkey download streaming across the street.” At this another responded, “They seem ‘cute’ until they behave as if they were in the veld!” Excuse me, are donkeys meant to use discreet toilets in the suburbs?

The old grey donkey, Eeyore stood by himself in a thistly corner of the Forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore?” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?” and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about. A. A. Milne.

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:

ELEVEN EGRETS

Cattle Egrets (Bubulcus ibis) are a common sight here, especially since the occasional appearance of the Urban Herd became permanent. Interestingly, Bubulcus is the Latin word for ‘herdsman’ – they certainly do appear to keep a close eye on their ‘charges’ and their relationship with cattle, buffalo, and even zebra are interesting to observe. Each animal appears to have an egret in attendance, ready to pounce on insects flushed by these large animals as they move through the grass. I have occasionally seen an egret pecking at ticks on the tip of a cow’s tail. They are also known to feed on frogs, small mammals, worms and eggs.

These are elegant looking birds, both on the ground and especially when they catch the late afternoon sun when in flight home to their communal roosting spots. I see them flying over our garden singly, in twos or threes, and sometimes many of them together. The tree in which many of them used to roost in town was cut down in an effort to get rid of them, so I am not sure where they go, although they have been recorded as flying up to 20km to their feeding areas.

These ones appear to be resting from their labours. If you look very closely, you may count more than the alliterative eleven basking in the late afternoon sun.

LOCAL CATTLE

We have become so used to finding scattered herds of cattle – what I call the Urban Herd – all over town that it was most surprising to find they had all disappeared over the festive season. Where could they have got to? My guess is that the owners may have rounded them all up to count them – so many calves have been born since the end of November that it wouldn’t surprise me if it was time to take stock. Of course there were no roaming cattle when we first arrived here; the first ones were a curiosity, a nuisance, and were regarded as a danger to traffic and destroyers of gardens and public parks. Perhaps the drought or simply familiarity softened our collective stance – we actually missed their presence! Wherever they went, the Urban Herd is slowly returning to our suburbs and to the so-called industrial area (there is virtually no industry here) on the outskirts of town.

We have dubbed this the Forest Herd as they frequent the old golf course and the hillside below the army base, only occasionally venturing down as far as the open ground below our home. I have taken a few head shots. The first is of a cow I last saw at the old golf course before Christmas.

She is easily recognised by her distinctive facial pattern and the shape of her horns. Notice the notch in her ear, which must indicate who her owner is. The horns of this one are admirable.

She too has a notch in her ear. I am rather surprised by the grey flecks on her face – another dark cow also looked grizzled, as if they were showing an advanced age. One cannot forget a pair of horns like this:

This one appears to have slight notches in both her ears – another subtle indication of ownership.

Driving along the Highlands road towards the stone bridge I have featured, we pass several cattle farms. These two Ngunis (a breed of cattle indigenous to southern Africa) caught my eye:

The patterns on their hides are incredibly beautiful.

TAKING THE PATH OUT

One tires of simply walking around the block and getting barked at by the same dogs in the same places and stepping round the same sewerage leaks … every now and then it is good to walk to the end of the road and along the path decorated with (on this day) donkey droppings acting as a starter marker for a jaunt out of the suburb.

It doesn’t go far for it serves merely as a shortcut to the nominal industrial area and the road that bypasses the town. The area is not as barren or as uninteresting as it might appear at first glance. Tiny pelargoniums look up brightly:

Spiderwebs catch some of the 2mm of rain that fell during the night:

An abandoned hollowed out termite heap gives a glimpse of the layers inside – I am sorry about the litter, but felt disinclined to remove it sans gloves:

At the top of the low rise one gets a lovely view across town on this overcast day:

The return path wends it way through patches of long grass:

In several places termites have been hard at work repairing their heaps:

On our return, we meet a single cow with her calf: