Job loss fears after farms go up in flames

A wildfire that killed at least 41 pregnant cows and destroyed 30 000ha of grazing land across more than 50 farms in Cathcart on Friday will have devastating effects on the Eastern Cape economy, as a resulting drop in meat production might lead to the retrenchment of farm workers.

Hundreds of head of livestock that fled to safety in upper Cathcart and Thomas River are still missing.

Nobody was injured in the fire, which took more than 500 people 18 hours to put out.

The Upper Cathcart Farmers’ Association will meet with Agri SA Eastern Cape and other farming stakeholders today to quantify the damage. But Richard Armstrong and wife Mandy of Tweedale Farm have already confirmed they lost 41 pregnant Fenfield cows valued at R615000.

The couple also lost 50 Dohne merino sheep with newborn lambs – with a combined value of R125000.

It took 72 firefighters from the Amahlathi fire department, Working on Fire, two choppers, one spotter plane and one water bomb carrier plane almost the entire Friday to get the fire under control. Alongside them were 75 farmers and their 450-strong workforce.

Yesterday, Agri SA Eastern Cape chairman Douglas Stern said farmers might have to let some employees go.

“There are farmers who have lost everything and it would be very difficult for them to recover soon because of the drought, and the first option would be to cut expenses.

“Salaries and wages fall under the expenditure budget in any business so farmers might have to look at retrenching,” he said.

The loss of livestock would mean less meat in the market and less money for farmers in the region.

The fire has been described as the worst to hit the area in many years. Farmers are still battling the effects of the drought that has gripped the Amathole region since January.

The fire started on Cata peak and spread towards Stutterheim near Thomas River. Armstrong said 3000 hay bales were destroyed when his shed caught alight.

When the Daily Dispatch visited Armstrong’s 2500ha farm on Saturday, the smell of smoke was still strong and patches of land werel smoldering. Animals were lying dead on the burnt fields.

Tweedale Farm manager Norman Footer’s Nissan MB 2000 bakkie was destroyed when three outbuildings at John Day’s Millerton farm were gutted by the inferno. The farm is leased to Day by overseas-based farmer Shaun Steward.

Also gutted was the building that used to house grades 1 to 7 of the now defunct Tweedale Farm School. The building was used by Armstrong as a storeroom after the Eastern Cape department of education closed the school a decade ago.

“Most devastating is the fact that this happens while we are in the grip of a drought,” said Armstrong. “We only had a little feed for the entire winter but now it is all gone.

“I don’t know what I am going to feed my animals with. My friends in Bedford said they would love to keep my cattle until we get out of this situation, but they are also facing a drought that side.”

Owner of Glen Finelas Farm and fire protection officer Chris Purdon said hundreds of animals that fled the blaze were still missing.

Purdon said they had been receiving offers from farmers in areas including Post Retief, Tarkastad and even the Free State to help them with animal feed.

“We are coordinating support from farmers within our organisation. Those who still have a little grazing land left can take animals from others for grazing.”

Support from neighbouring farmers had been “amazing”. “It could have been much, much worse. The fortunate thing is that there was no loss of human life,” Purdon said. —

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