Cranes and crops: farmer attitudes to damage by Blue Cranes

I thought it would be appropriate to make my first blog post about my own work, resulting from my Masters thesis. The topic for my work revolved around exploring the viability of Blue Cranes (Anthropoides paradiseus) in the Western Cape of South Africa. This topic was close to my heart for a number of reasons. I have always loved these spectacular birds and found the sight of them dancing through canola fields particularly poetic. Secondly, they are strongly dependent on agricultural lands and being a farmers daughter, I really feel for both farmers and species that cause trouble on farms. These types of situations are desperately complicated, and are always interesting for problem solvers like me. Finally, this project let me get to grips with complex and quite unnerving methodology, namely using the program MARK to understand survival.


Blue Cranes gathered around sheep troughs in the Overberg region of the Western Cape. Courtesy of Peter Ryan

I will dedicate this first post to discussing a portion of my first chapter of research, that is, understanding farmer attitudes towards Blue Crane-caused damage: what are the problems, when and to what does damage occur and what management is currently used to counter-act the damage. Blue Cranes are currently listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN and have the most geographically restricted range of all cranes, being found almost exclusively in South Africa. The Western Cape population is therefore specifically important, as it is the largest population in South Africa, and hence, the world.  I will dedicate two separate posts to discussing what farmers can do about the damage and what farmers perceive to be threats to cranes. 

To get to grips with what the problems with having large, gregarious (that is, tend to flock in large numbers) birds on farmer’s fields I decided to use an interview approach. This required me visiting substantial numbers of farmers in the Western Cape, and trying to get them to talk to me. If this sounds an easy task you would be wrong. Farmers are by nature a shy secluded bunch, preferring the company of their fields and family. Farming communities are also quite closed to outsiders and often regard strangers with distrust. My personal experience with these people was one of deep warmth, welcome and a strong sense of place. Upon an initial phone call most farmers had the attitude of  “Yes, come out to my farm, but make it quick and don’t waste my time.” I was a little nervous driving up to their farms to say the least. However, as soon as I got out the car, I was overwhelmed with offers for tea, rusks and a chair in the smartest sitting room. Whew!

These farmers were almost always 3rd or 4th generation, some having farms dating back to the late 1800’s.  They therefore have a strong understanding of long term weather processes, climatic change and natural systems. Interestingly, for quite conservative people, many of these farmers are intrigued by new-age soil conservation techniques, alternatives to harmful pesticides and incorporating conservation initiatives on their farms. This stems primarily, I suspect, not from a sudden shift to “hippy” ideals, but rather witnessing first hand the need for radical change, to stop erosion or accidental poisoning of wildlife for example.

But back to the lovely blue cranes. What I found was that farmer opinions on the subject of this species depended strongly on where you were and what kind of farm you were on. I conducted my study in two main areas within the Western Cape, the Swartland and the Overberg (see map below). The former is an area more marginal for farming, with variable rain and limited natural fodder for livestock. The Swartland’s main crops/income are wheat, sheep and beef. The Overberg is wetter, and concentrates on lucerne, wheat and barley production. However, I found that these crops/land uses farmed at large scales were rarely the problem when it came to crane-caused damage. Rather, damage occurred in two ways, specific to each region.


The Western Cape Province (black indicating high elevation), showing the two study areas, the Swartland and the Overberg), in relation to the rest of South Africa

Firstly, farmers in the Swartland reported significant problems with crane damage to sweet lupin. This is a crop used to produce fodder for livestock and farmed in relatively small amounts, which belies its importance. Farmers often depend on this to feed their sheep, the primary way farmers make money in this region. Without sweet lupin, farmers have to buy feed externally, which is expensive.  Therefore, cranes targeting this (probably delicious) crop was extremely aggravating to farmers.  A high proportion (65%) of farmers interviewed had experienced some level of damage by Blue Cranes, with 30% of them listing the damage experienced as “high”. In fact, 40% of farmers in the Swartland ranked Blue Cranes as the number one pest on their farms, ahead of common pests such as Egyptian Geese (Alopochen aegyptiacusand Spur-winged Geese (Plectropterus gambensis). On average farmers with sweet lupin crops reported 15% of their sweet lupin crop was lost to cranes, but this ranged from 1% to 100%, indicating that damage was spatially variable.  Damage occurred mainly when crops were young and forming buds or shoots, which takes place during winter for most of the crops grown in this region.

Conversely, farmers in the Overberg reported only minor problems, mainly regarding cranes eating feed given to sheep at troughs. This problem was not found in the Swartland at all. The cranes in the Overberg gather around sheep troughs, and sometimes exclude sheep from eating at their own troughs. Farmers in the Overberg were not overly concerned with this phenomenon however, no farmer (0%) listed crane-cause damage as “high”. Additionally, all farmers in the Overberg listed Blue Cranes as the least problematic species, compared to Egyptian and Spur-winged geese. This indicates that farmers in this region experienced a very different set of conditions than farmers in the Swartland, even though these regions are approximately 2 hours drive away from each other.

The main criteria for farmers for management interventions to manage Blue Crane-caused damage were that it should be cost-effective, not be labour intensive and also help to manage geese problems on their farms. Five respondents reported that they did not currently manage Blue Cranes on their elds because they quickly became habituated to all available techniques such as gas cannons and shooting to scare them away. Conversely, most farmers (75 %) in the Overberg reported that they did not manage cranes on their elds because they did not view them as a problem.

The conservation implications of these results are important. It’s important to note that damage caused by wildlife on farms is extremely variable, even within a single province in a single country. No two farmers will react to damage in the same way, or even rank its importance to their farm in the same way. Farmers in the Overberg think Blue Cranes cause very little damage to their farms, while in the Swartland farmers experience high levels of damage, and are currently frustrated with the lack of management options available to them. Farmers in the Overberg require little management advice to deal with cranes, while Swartland farmers urgently require solutions.  Additionally, the fact that farmer responses to damage are proportional to the amount of damagincurred suggests no inherent bias against cranes, which is encouraging as a disproportionate response to damage is often found in human-wildlife conicts.These results also highlight the need for location-specic solutions, as well as the need to understand the local context within which damage occurs. thorough understanding of the agricultural lands cape, farmer culture,and species ecology is the rst step toward the development of appropriate mitigation methods.

For further reading please see the journal article we have published recently  on this work, in Environmental Management. This is currently available for free reading at





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s