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The Illustrated London News - March 30th, 1878


We present a series of Illustrations of this new and profitable industry in our Colonial Dominion of South Africa. They are from photographs by Mr. C. J. Aldham, of Grahamstown, late chief operator to Messrs. Hill and Saunders. They were taken on the estate of Mr. A. Douglass, near Grahamstown, who was the originator of ostrich farming, and is the largest ostrich proprietor. Ten years ago, Mr. Douglass obtained three wild birds, and afterwards eight more. As soon as he found they would lay in confinement, he began his experiments in artificial hatching. This attempt met with but little success for three years, till he invented the patent incubator, the success of which has become renowned. By its means he has increased the eleven birds to 900, and these and others becoming dispersed throughout the colony have made ostrich farming, next to wool and diamonds, the most important industry of South Africa.

Mr. Anthony Trollope's recently published book on "South Africa " in two volumes Messrs. Chapman and Hall, publishers), contains the following description:
I was taken from Grahamstown to see an ostrich farm about fifteen miles distant. The establishment belongs to Mr. Douglass, who is I believe, among the ostrich farmers of the colony about the most successful ; and who was, if not the first, the first who did the work on a large scale. He is, moreover, the patentee for an egg-hatching machine, or incubator, which is now in use among many of the feather-growers of the district. Mr. Douglass occupies about 1200 acres of rough ground, formerly devoted to sheep farming. The country around was all used not long since as sheep walks, but seems to have so much deteriorated by changes in the grasses as to be no longer profitable for that purpose. But it will feed ostriches.

“At this establishment I found about 300 of those birds, which, taking them all round, young and old, were worth about £30 a piece. Each bird fit for plucking gives two crops of feathers a year, and produces on the average feathers to the value of £15 per annum. The creatures feed themselves unless when sick or young, and live upon the various bushes and grasses of the land. The farm is divided out into paddocks, and, with those which are breeding, one cock with two hens occupies each paddock. The young birds- for they do not breed till they are three years old – or those which are not paired, run in flocks of thirty or forty each. They are subject to diseases, which, of course, require attention, and are apt to damage themselves, sometimes breaking their own bones, and getting themselves caught in the wire fences. Otherwise, they are hardy brutes, which can stand much heat and cold, can do for long periods without water, require no delicate feeding, and give, at existing prices, ample returns for the care bestowed upon them.

“But, nevertheless, ostrich farming is a precarious venture. The birds are of such value, a full-grown bird in perfect health being worth as much as £75, that there are of course risks of great loss. And I doubt whether the industry has, as yet, existed long enough for those who employ it to know all its conditions. The two great things to do are to hatch the eggs, and then to pluck or cut the feathers, sort them, and send them to market. I think I may say that ostrich farming without the use of an incubator can never produce great results. The birds injure their feathers by sitting, and at every hatching lose two months. There is, too, great uncertainly as to the number of young birds which will be produced, and much danger as to the fate of the young bird when hatched. An incubator seems to be a necessity for ostrich farming. Surely, no less appropriate word was ever introduced into the language, for it is a machine expressly invented to render unnecessary the process of incubation. The farmer who devotes himself to artificial hatching provides himself with an assortment of dummy eggs, consisting of eggshells blown and filled with sand, and with these successsfully allures the hens to lay. The animals are so large, and the ground is so open, that there is but little difficulty in watching them and in obtaining the eggs. As each egg is worth nearly £5, I should think that they would be open to much theft when the operation becomes more general, but as yet there has not come up a market for the receipt of stolen goods. When found, they are brought to the head-quarters, and kept till the vacancy occurs for them in the machine.

“The incubator is a low ugly piece of deal furniture standing on four legs, perhaps eight or nine feet long. At each end there two drawers, in which the eggs are laid with a certain apparatus of flannel; and these drawers, by means of screws beneath them, are raised and lowered to the extent of two or three inches. The drawer is lowered when it is pulled out, and is capable of receiving a certain number of eggs; I saw , I think fifteen in one. Over the drawers and along the top of the whole machine there is a tank filled with hot water and the drawer, when closed, is screwed up so as to bring the side of the egg in contact with the bottom of the tank. Hence comes the necessary warmth. Below the machine and in the centre of it a lamp or lamps are placed, which maintain the heat that is required. The eggs lie in the drawer for six weeks, and then the bird is brought out.

"All this is simple enough, and yet the work of hatching is most complicated and requires not only care, but a capacity of tracing results which is not given to all men. The ostrich turns her egg frequently, so that each side of it may receive due attention. The ostrich farmer must therefore turn his eggs. This he does about three times a day. A certain amount of moisture is required, as in nature moisture exudes from the sitting bird. The heat must be moderated according to circumstances, or the yolk becomes glue and the young bird is choked. Nature has to be followed most minutely, and must be observed and understood before it can be followed. And when the time for birth comes on, the ostrich farmer must turn midwife and delicately assist the young one to open it’s shell, having certain instruments for the purpose. And when he has performed his obstetrical operations, he must become a nursing mother to the young progeny, who can by no means walk about and get his living in his earliest days. The little chickens in our farmyards seem to take the world very easily; but they have their mother's wings, and we as yet hardly know all the assistance which is thus given to them. But the ostrich farmer must know enough to keep his young ones alive, or he will soon be ruined; for each bird when hatched is supposed to be worth £10. The ostrich farmer must take upon himself all the functions of the ostrich mother, and must know all that instinct has taught her, or he will hardly be successful.

" The birds are plucked before they are a year old, and I think that no one as yet knows the limit of age to which they will live and be plucked. I saw birds which had been plucked for sixteen years, and were still in high feather. When the plucking time has come, the necessary number of birds are enticed by a liberal display of mealies - as maize or Indian corn is called in South Africa into a pen, one side of which is movable. The birds will go willingly after mealies, and will run about their paddocks after any one they see, in the expectation of these delicacies. When the pen is full, the movable side is run in, so that the birds are compressed together beyond the power of violent struggling. They cannot spread their wings, or make the dart forward which is customary to them when about to kick. Then men go in among them, and, taking up their wings, pluck or cut their feathers. Both processes are common, but the former I think is most so, as being the more profitable. There is a heavier weight to sell when the feather is plucked; and the quill begins to grow again at once, whereas the process is delayed when nature is called upon to eject the stump. I did not see the thing done, but I was assured that the little notice taken by the animal of the operation may be accepted as proof that the pain, if any, is slight. I leave this question to the decision of naturalists and anti vivisectors.

" The feathers are then sorted into various lots ; the white primary outside rim from under the bird's wing being by far the most valuable being sold, as I have said before, at a price as high as £25 a pound. The sorting does not seem to be a difficult operation, and is done by coloured men. The produce is then packed in boxes, and sent down to be sold at Port Elizabeth by auction.

" As far as I saw, all labour about the place was done by black men, except that which fell to the lot of the owner and two or three young men who were with him, and were learning the work under his care. These were men who lived each in his own hut but with his wife and family. They received 26s. a month and their diet, which consisted of two pounds of meat and two pounds of mealies a day each. The man himself could not eat this amount of food, but would no doubt find it little enough with his wife and children. With this, he has permission to build his hut about the place, and to burn his master’s fuel. He buys coffee if he wants from his master'store, and in his present condition generally does want it. When in his hut he rolls himself in his blanket, but when he comes out to his work attires himself in some more or less European attire, according to regulation" (The men whom Mr. Trollope saw working here were not Kaffirs, but Indian coolies.)

The Kaffir, is a good humoured fellow, but if occasion should arise he would probably be a rebel. On this very spot where I was talking to him, the master of this farm had felt himself compelled during the last year 1876, to add a couple of towers to his house, so that in the event of an attack he might be able to withdraw his family from the reach of shot, and have a guarded platform from whence to fire at his enemies. Whether or not the danger was near, as he thought it last year, I am unable to say; but there was the fact that he had found it necessary so to protect himself, only a few months since within twenty miles of Grahamstown ! Such absence of the feeling of security must of course be injurious, if not destructive to all industrial operations.

"I may add with regard to ostrich farming, that I have heard that 50 per cent per annum on the capital invested has been not uncommonly made. But I have heard also that all the capital invested has not unfrequently been lost. It must be regarded as a precarious business, and one which requires special adaptation in the person who conducts it. And to this must be added the fact that it depends entirely on a freak of fashion. Wheat and wool, cotton and coffee, leather and planks, men will certainly continue to want; and of these things the value will undoubtedly be maintained by competition for their possession. But ostrich feathers may become a drug; when the nursemaid affects them, the Duchess will cease to do so"


Our first Illustration is a view of Heatherton Towers, the residence of Mr. A. Douglass in the Fish River Valley, eighteen miles from Grahamstown.

The house is built, as Mr. Anthony Trollope remarks, so as with very little work to be converted into a fort, in the event of a Kaffir insurrection


Our next view is the scene of mustering the birds, which run in flocks in large inclosures.

The one where our view is taken is 3000 acres, with a troop of 240 birds in it. Here, once a week, they are all hunted up by men on horseback armed with large boughs of thorn, to keep the birds off, as many are very savage, and their kick is dangerous. One will be observed in front, with pack horse, loaded with Indian corn. to lead them


Another Illustration is a view of birds drinking; although the ostrich can, live for months without water, he thrives much better with it.

The incubating room is shown in one of our Illustrations

It is a large building so constructed as not to be affected by change of weather. Here several incubators are at work; in one an egg can be seen just broken through. On the top of the machines are the birds' sleeping places, all heated. The drawers are represented as when lowered and drawn out, to show them; when again pushed in, they are lifted and fastened by large screws beneath them.


In another Illustration, Mr. Douglass, is represented in the act of helping a weakly bird out of its shell.

By certain signs discovered by himself it can be told to an hour when the bird is ready, but it often happens that the bird cannot pierce the shell, and unless helped would die.


We also give an Illustration of the feather room.

We are informed that the birds are plucked twice a year that is, the tail and the primary wing feathers, which are the only white feathers, are plucked, and the secondary wing feathers, which are the long black feathers. These are all that are taken from bird. In this room the feathers are sorted into various qualities, tied up in bunches, and packed in cases ready for shipment to London.

Another Illustration shows a Coolie with his lot of young birds.

It should be explained that to each lot of about thirty birds a man is told off, who from sunrise to sunset goes about in the lucerne fields with them, cutting up the lucerne for them or breaking bones for them, and finding them gravel and water. They become immensely attached to their nurse. We are informed, contrary to Mr. Trollope's statement that on this estate Coolies from India are employed, being so much more reliable than Kaffirs

Another Illustration shows a bird sitting on her nest.

The hen sits by day and the cock by night, except in wet weather, when the cock will remain on day and night, being evidently afraid to trust his wife.

Our last Illustration is one of “the find”

It is often a serious matter to find the nests, the bird is in anger at being disturbed, and, if a male bird, would soon send horse and rider flying to escape his furious kicks.

©John Weedy - July 2003










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