National 15.9.2016 01:09 pm

Rapid urbanisation creates problems for free-roaming livestock

Letsitele cattle disrupting traffic. Picture: Jaryd Moore

Letsitele cattle disrupting traffic. Picture: Jaryd Moore

Letsitele’s case of free-roaming cattle raises the national concern of liability for livestock damaging property and being road hazards.

The herd of cattle in the little town of Letsitele, Limpopo, that freely roams around the town was first reported on by the Letaba Herald last year.

The cows disrupted traffic, intruded on residential property and walked the streets without oversight. The owners could not be found, and their shepherds were nowhere to be seen.

Despite numerous complaints over a period of years, this still hasn’t changed, but according to locals, everyone knows who owns the cows – including authorities.

Apparently there is more than one herd, with more than one owner. The shepherds are said to neglect the cows, spending most of their time at the tavern. They allegedly round up the herd after dark when there are no witnesses, and have even been said to cut into fenced properties to give the cows entry to the fields.

The names of the owners as well as the supervisor to the shepherds have now been submitted to Neville Ndlala, spokesperson for the municipality, who stated that once identified, the owners would receive their final warning and have their cows confiscated. Residents can contact Johannes Malatji at 083 939 0177 if the cows are seen in public again.

With the rapid urbanisation of so many rural areas throughout South Africa, the topic of free-roaming livestock has become more and more common. Livestock causing damage to private or public property is one thing, but the impact on road safety is another. Although this has steadily become a national concern, it is not a uniquely South African problem.

In the USA, some states enforce what they call “Open Range” laws, which actually protect cattle owners from liability when allowing their animals freedom to roam unchecked into private property. Any damage caused by the cattle is counted as negligence on the part of the property owners for not “fencing out” the animals. These laws clearly favour the cattle owners and stock farmers, but they are currently a major point of contention.

In some parts of England’s countryside, regional councils have requested to fit cattle with reflective collars and even jackets to minimise road hazards. And in India, traffic police have started attaching fluorescent lights to the cows’ horns in order to increase visibility for drivers on the roads.

Cows at leisure in Letsitele’s park. Picture: Letaba Herald.

Cows at leisure in Letsitele’s park. Picture: Letaba Herald.

But that raises the cultural question. In India’s national religion, cows are considered holy – symbols of life itself. In African cultures, cows are considered symbols of wealth. Here, having your cattle strut down the streets is a means of flaunting status for neighbours to see.

The difficulty, however, is South African cultural diversity. What if one’s neighbour doesn’t share the same cultural view about your cows eating his Clivias? What if half of the community only sees a ‘Happy Meal’ when they look at a cow?

This is the challenge South Africans face.

While we figure that one out, we still have the law to help draw the lines. In contrast to the USA, the South African Fencing Act of 1963 states in short that “… if cattle stray on to your land, their owner is usually liable for any damage they cause by grazing there, even if no negligence is involved. The owner may be liable even though the animals gained access through the carelessness of a third person, for example someone who left the gate open to a neighbouring property”, and the Pounds Ordinance 13 of 1972 states that the owner of any stock trespassing on land is liable for any damage caused to crops or fences.

This legislation doesn’t speak directly to liability with regards to road accidents, but the law is enforced on a case-by-case basis. Livestock owners have become increasingly liable for damage caused by their animals, especially on public roads. Earlier this year, two farmers paid R900 000 in damages when one of their cows escaped from its enclosed camp and caused a motorcycle accident on a road nearby.

Stock farmers and owners are therefore to take extreme caution with regards to the maintenance of their fencing. And those simply indifferent to the imposition of their herds on private property and public roads, as in the case of Letsitele, could be faced with potentially devastating legal consequences.

Caxton News Service

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