There are many fine farming localities on the planet, but few can match the bounty of our valleys / Summerhill Sires Brochure (p)
“March is a beautiful time in our neck of the woods. The first twinges of autumnal freshness greet the rising sun, the days are blue and the countryside is mellow. Occasionally, and particularly on the full moon, the seeded husks of the oats and the rye plantings burst forth under the late afternoon “splash” that delivers winter’s harvest: the soils are deep and complex, a legacy of the minerals deposited by millions of years of the Drakensberg sandstone’s degradation, and soon nature’s generosity leaves a profusion of emerald splendour.”
Summerhill CEOThe great animal migrations of the world have forever been a source of fascination (and often enough, of sustenance) for human beings. Visually, the most famous of these is the annual wildebeest and zebra charge across the Mara River from Tanzania into Kenya, at the back end of the Southern Hemisphere winter. There is, in the whole wide world, nothing quite as spectacular or terrifying as the sight of these ravenous creatures braving the treacherous crossing of those murky waters, beneath which lurk a thousand crocodiles and across the banks of which lie a hundred hungry lions. “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die: into the Valley of Death, rode the six hundred,” is how Tennyson might describe it.
We Natalians know better, though. While the visual carnage is hidden from most of us beneath the waves of the Indian Ocean, numerically, the greatest migration on earth is the annual sardine run on the east coast of South Africa, where mile upon mile of these gleaming visitors to our shores face the plunder of the great ocean predators, sharks, dolphin and game fish, not to mention the seine netters and the fishermen, for months on end. And it’s all about food, as it has been ever since homo erectus departed this continent for the outer world some 65,000 years ago.
March is a beautiful time in our neck of the woods. The first twinges of autumnal freshness greet the rising sun, the days are blue and the countryside is mellow. Occasionally, and particularly on the full moon, the seeded husks of the oats and the rye plantings burst forth under the late afternoon “splash” that delivers winter’s harvest: the soils are deep and complex, a legacy of the minerals deposited by millions of years of the Drakensberg sandstone’s degradation, and soon nature’s generosity leaves a profusion of emerald splendour.
There are many fine farming localities on the planet, but few can match the bounty of our valleys. Long before the advent of the great economies of finance, industry and technology, the most precious commodity on earth was good land, and nowhere was there a greater contest for the spoils of a region than the vicinity in which we’re lucky to live. The Zulus, the Afrikaners and the British all have proud military stories to tell, yet it was here, within a couple of hours of the Summerhill office, that these three nations battled it out more doggedly and more fiercely than at any time in their previous histories.
Without knowing the consequences, some twenty years ago, we embraced the idea that nature was our master (or our mistress, depending on your persuasion) and, rather than trying to beat her, we needed to work together. Our old friend, the world-feted conservationist, Dr Ian Player, taught us that “nature has plenty of time: in the end, she will get her way”. He was right; the courtship was not an overnight process, we had to purge ourselves of conventions, get to grips with how nature works and undo all the things man had done to alter her ways. The harmony that followed came from a realisation that we couldn’t compete with the big money in breeding unless we discovered other ways of producing an “edge”: one of these was harnessing the advantages of our environment, our climate and the virtues of our people, and the rest would take care of itself.
The proof of the pudding lay in this weekend’s “eating”. The rusty patchwork you see from the Giant’s Castle road, interspersed with the greens and yellows of the last of our summer pastures, comes from the toils of a tireless tandem of the “boys in green,” putting the finishing touches to our winter plantings. The “big dog” 6330 pulls the ripper, the 5725 rumbles along with the disc and the 5503 pats it all down with the planter. As its custodians for the time-being, we all want to leave the land in better shape than it was when we got it, so it’s a complement to our stewardship that as the John Deere’s wind up their work, the crowned cranes, the European storks, our national birds the blue cranes, the hadedahs and the sacred ibis and tens of thousands of seed-eaters, descend on our paddocks. You see, like the wildebeest and the sardines, they’re all driven by the prospects of food, and tilling the soil exposes the smorgasbord beneath it. At Summerhill, ever since we adopted the “green” approach almost two decades ago, we’ve treated the soil with the tenderness you’d reserve for a new mistress, delicately tickling its surface with kid gloves. Nonetheless, a good crop, like a good lady, requires some caressing, and that means a little inconvenience for those that live below the soil’s crust.
Good land is a natural phenomenon of our area, but healthy land is not always the by-product. That depends on the way you look after it, and when the birds of the air descend in their hundreds to scavenge on what the discs and the planters turn up, you know you’ve got it right. We’re not suggesting that our neighbours are not good caretakers, but for some years now, the birds have known that when the soils at Summerhill are exposed, there’s a harvest of micro-organisms like no other.
Crowned Cranes / Leigh Willson (p)
As we write, a conference of more than 100 crowned cranes crowd the terraces alongside the best piece of private turf in the country: in the land adjacent, like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, a blue crane gyrates his ritual dance for a disinterested mate: in the land we call Bridal Paths, among a new crop of champions, 60-odd European storks tuck in to the banquet that will take them on the arduous journey back to the clock towers of Amsterdam, Antwerp and Alsace. They come here in these numbers, because they know that here, more than anywhere else, the feast is for a king.
Most of the people that made Summerhill “tick” two decades ago, were lucky in their upbringings. Somewhere inside lived a little farmer, a respect for the environment and a love of animals, and they shared a will to sustain what they were about. Fixing the mindset is always the challenge: after that, it’s about blood, sweat and sacrifice, and a big “dollop” of patience. Reversing the damage of sixty years of conventional farming is no instant pudding, and there’s still work to be done. The much-decorated herd of Anguses that greets our visitors from around the world, came from the best families of the best cattle breeders in the nation. As precious as the blood that courses through their veins, is their mutual capacity (with the horses) for eradicating parasites and removing billiary-bearing ticks. The symbiosis was easy to see; you only have to visit a game reserve to witness the “glue” between wildebeest and zebras. In the midst of it all, fortune smiled on us once again. The Anguses are “nature’s gardeners”, and the stable bedding we spread before them on the frosted floors of our winter paddocks, is quickly returned as compost. Our horses sleep on “five-star” mattresses, and this hay resource eventually gave birth to a compost enterprise of mean proportions.
We realised long ago that a healthy paddock relied not only on the micro-organisms that reside beneath its surface, but also on the meter or so above, and so we began the business of restoring the land to its original tilth and crumble, by re-introducing the materials and the minerals that had been extracted over the decades. The outcome was a reversion to the way nature intended it.
How often do we hear citizens complaining about the moles in their gardens, and the earthworms, the dung beetles and the frogs that appear with the onset of the rains and the first whispers of spring? Truth is, moles are the soil’s living aerators, earthworms are the sub-soil conveyors of nutrients, and dung beetles are the outward manifestation of a healthy, balanced environment, just as frogs are. Anything in excess or in absence is a sign of imbalance, and the emergence of these fellows tells us that nature is satisfied, that things are how they should be. As much as we might like to see a Kikuyu pasture resembling a bowling green, to the smart farmer, a couple of mole heaps tells him all is well, that the environment is kind but not necessarily soft, and that the Summerhill claim that we are home to the best nourished horses on the continent, is not just a pipe dream.