At the core of the herdsmen and farmers crisis currently ravaging Nigeria is the issue of fodder for the livestock. Animal feed in the unmanaged, free rangeland is basically an ecological problem since it has to do with which plants grow where, whether they are suitable as animal feed as well as their all-year round availability. It is thus not out of place to bring ecological perspectives into the debate on the crisis to, in the first place clarify some of the issues and hope that with clearer understanding, sustainable solutions may be proffered to the shameful blood shedding.
Naturally, due to ready availability of nutritious and accessible non-woody plants and plant parts known as fodder, grasslands or in the case of the tropics, savannas are natural home to big game animals and livestock – cattle, sheep and goats especially. Savannas occupy close to 80% of Nigeria’s land area but not all of this was suitable for livestock rearing, due to the prevalence of tsetse fly in the Middle Belt and southern states, that is, the present day political North Central and south zones.
Urbanisation, expanding arable crop farming and astronomical increase in human population and improved scientific management has reduced tsetse fly prevalence and expanded animal rearing southwards from the Sudan zone, our present north western and north-eastern zones. To the aforementioned factors should be added unprecedented rates of deforestation in the south that keeps pushing the forest-savannah boundary southwards. Based on tsetse fly prevalence, it is clear that cattle rearing was restricted first, to the Sudan Savannah zone. The Sahel zone, Nigeria’s extreme north east, has had cattle for millennia, especially as it was much wetter and the vegetation more lush in the past than in the recent decades.
Indigenous cows, goats and sheep that are resistant to tsetse transmitted trypanosomiasis have been part of the southern and Middle Belt cultures. What we had over the years was migration of cattle from the north to the south towards the end of the rainy season and early dry season. The migrant herds and herders spent the dry season in the south and returned north at the beginning of the rainy season in what used to be spectacular numbers. Thus were created temporary cattle routes and colonies outside the northernmost areas.
The growth pattern of grass and other herbaceous plants necessitates migration. Young, fresh grass is more nutritious than mature, dry ones. That is, they have more of the easy to digest carbohydrates, more mineral nutrients and water, in fact, the essential things ruminant livestock need for growth. As grass matures, it accumulates fibrous, difficult-to-digest materials. Grass attains maximum size towards the end of the growth season, by September/October/November, turns brown and dries up. At maturity grass flowers and produces seeds and translocates the nutrients in them downwards to the underground rootstock. The dry grass could be used for construction and as fuel but not as animal fodder. In the wild where the dry grass is not harvested, it is usually burnt in the annual fires we experience during the dry season. The underground part of the grass is rarely affected by the fires and soon brings out shoots that are very nutritious, after fires and early rainy season. Herdsmen are familiar with this phenomenon and have been known to start savannah fires in order to get young, nutritious grass. Of course, like most things in nature, all grasses are not equally nutritious.
Animals themselves through their genes know which plants are poisonous and those that are good to eat except during acute scarcity when they eat almost anything except the poisonous plants. Cattle have been known to eat polythene bags, which though not poisonous and feel benign, may be dangerous in the long term. In addition to grass, there are non-woody plants that are nutritious and are consumed by livestock, all part of what we call fodder. These favoured fodder get so consumed that they are over-grazed and rendered unable to reproduce and may die out of the rangelands leaving virtually useless herbage behind. This is one the dangers of concentration livestock in one location, for example, as cattle colonies. The remedy may be to import adequate feeds to that location. Concentration also leads to trampling that damages the soil and renders it unable to support plant growth.
In addition to grass and herbage, livestock are also fed on browse from tree and shrub branches. Just like grasses and other herbs, not all trees are tolerated by livestock. So favoured trees are lopped by herdsmen and their soft parts, especially leaves fed to livestock. This practice constitutes a danger to the trees and tree branch lopping is a major threat to our forest reserves and national parks. Such reserves are large, extensive areas and are difficult to police and cannot be fenced round. Even when policed, what could range guards do when confronted by armed herdsmen? In addition to herbage and browse, farm leftovers are also of good food value to livestock. In situations where cereal crops that attain their full growth cycle and mature during one season, inviting livestock into farms benefits the arable crop farmer and the animals. But in situations where some crops take two or more years to reach harvest stage, cassava, for example, this is not possible.
Nigeria is one of the most gifted countries in the world in terms of diverse ecologies, ranging from mangrove forest and fresh water swamps in the south to sub-humid savannah and semi-arid zones in the north and north east. These translate to diverse possibilities in terms of non-human life support. Thus, marine and shell fisheries thrive in the south and big game animals and cattle in the north. Due to factors associated with high human population density – development of modern urban infrastructure-roads, housing estates and other related facilities, Nigeria has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. This in addition to those activities connected to under-development such as shifting cultivation, fire wood harvesting and charcoal making. Understandably, vegetation removal/deforestation has made free-range grazing of livestock much more difficult. Valuable herbs have been lost and browse trees have been obliterated by this process.