Ostriches have been in the Klein Karoo for a long time. For hundreds of years the San have been using ostriches for their meat and eggs. The eggs are used firstly as a source of food and then, when the shell is empty, as a handy container for carrying or storing water – by burying a cache of water-filled eggs for emergencies.

Ostriches were highly valued in many other cultures including the Ancient Egyptians, the Romans, the Welsh, the French and locally, the Zulus. As a result of the hunting by man the ostriches retreated into the dry, harsh deserts. This, combined with natural predation meant that ostriches became harder to find and the price of feathers rose.

In 1821 the Cape of Good Hope exported 1 230 kg of ostrich feathers valued at 115 590 rix-dollars (R 17 338). By 1858, although only 915 kg of feathers were exported, they were valued at R 25 316,  an increase in value of almost 100%. Seeing the potential, the farmers of the Oudtshoorn district pioneered the domestication of ostriches in the 1850’s.

The ostriches were placed in large fenced off areas and soon began breeding. By 1865 the size of the feather crop had increased to 8 600 kg with a value of R 125 000, close to what it was in 1821 (R 14/kg). There was a very high mortality rate amongst the chicks because of predators, illness and injury making this new form of farming very hazardous. This all changed in 1869 with the invention of the ostrich egg incubator, by Arthur Douglass, which reduced many of the hazards and increased production.

The magistrate at Oudtshoorn, Mr Scholtz first introduced lucerne to South Africa by importing the seed and planting a small plot to feed his ostriches. The birds thrived on this diet and all the farmers started planting lucerne. The number of breeding birds rose from only 80 in 1865 to well over 20 000 by 1875. Everyone wanted to be an ostrich farmer.

The minimum amount of capital needed to start farming with ostriches was R 10 000. This paid for 10 hectares of irrigated land, three pairs of breeding birds, incubators, a few sheds, some equipment and a primitive farmhouse.

With so many ostrich farmers, the supply of feathers grew causing a slight drop in the price. The larger farmers were hardly affected because of the volumes they were exporting. The best quality feathers were still commanding high prices, over R 200 per kg in 1884 when the general price was only R 16 per kg. By this time the ostrich feather industry had become a significant factor in the South African economy. After gold, diamonds and wool, it was the country’s fourth largest export.

The slight recession did not last long and the outlook slowly improved, then accelerated into a fullscale boom. The first of the famous “Feather” palaces of Oudtshoorn were constructed during this time and because there were now so many ostriches, the laws preventing their slaughter were repealed.

The industry continued to thrive through the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and the decade that followed. The first indication of problems in the industry came in 1911 with signs of overproduction and increasing competition, especially from California. The South African ostrich breeders realised that the only way they could continue to dominate the world market was to produce the best feathers in the world. This led to the fascinating hunt for the Barbary Ostrich.

The hunt was successful and with the superior new feather spreading through the country, 1913 brought a bumper crop of high quality feathers with the price of the finest double-fluff feathers reaching R 650 per kg earning the country about R 6 million. The ostrich feather industry would never reach these heights again.

In 1914 the bottom dropped out of the feather market and farmers who had been millionaires one day found themselves poverty stricken the next. The popular reason given for the collapse is that ostrich feather hats were no longer practical due to the growing popularity of motor cars, but there were other factors involved – notably the outbreak of World War One (1914-1918). At the end of the war there were still 314 000 domesticated ostriches left in South Africa but by 1930 this number had declined to only 32 000.

In the Oudtshoorn district there were only 2 000 ostriches left by 1940. Thousands of birds had been slaughtered for their skins which could now be successfully treated. In the short-term skins were providing the farmers with more income than feathers and good breeding stock was becoming scarce. After World War Two (1939-1945) the ostrich trade slowly recovered and expanded from feathers to include skins and a brand new source of income – tourism.

The Highgate and Safari Ostrich Show Farms were favourites with tourists for decades but competition has increased in recent times including two show farms in the Cango Valley en route to the Caves. Tours of working ostrich farms are also becoming very popular. The ostrich industry seems to be firmly established now even if it is going through tough times at the moment, mainly due to the strength of the Rand and increasing domestic and international competition.

In the last decade, previously cheap ostrich meat has steadily increased in price because of increasing consumption in the First World as a result of it’s extremely low fat content and similarity to beef. Most of the meat exported is fillet but locally it comes in all sorts of forms, with wors (sausage) and biltong (dried and spiced meat) being among the favourites.

Almost every part of the ostrich is now utilised and ostrich leather is very popular in all sorts of fashion items including shoes, clothes, handbags and most recently ostrich leather jewelry by a local design company – Wessels Designs. It seems that the history of Oudtshoorn and the (modern) ostrich will be forever interwoven.