The Wooly Weeders

Every spring and summer in northern California we welcome the arrival of the grazing sheep. Here’s a look at how a few hundred sheep are used for fire prevention.

Vineyards hire them to eat the weeds between the grape rows and to thin the grape leaves. Landowners use them to organically mow the tall grass, a fire hazard, and other vegetation.

Typically our rainy season ends in May or June and then we don’t have rain again until about November. During this time the grass turns brown.

The sheep mow the grass, chew off invasive weeds, provide manure fertilizer, and aerate the soil with their hooves. Unlike weed whackers or mowers, there is no fuel used and the only noise is lots of “baaas” and “maaas.”

These photos were taken from the edge of town last month, the ovines were here for three weeks.

I estimated the flock at 200-300, and it seemed they were all lambs and ewes.

The sheep were accompanied by one shepherd, a Peruvian man, and an Australian Shepherd dog named Lollie.

Since fire dangers have increased in California, grazing services have become more popular. Sheep, goats, even llamas and alpacas are seen. Here we had just sheep, called the Wooly Weeders.

There are more than 200 distinct breeds of sheep on this planet and breeding is ever-evolving. This flock is some derivation of the East Friesian Milk Sheep, the world’s highest producer of milk.

The Wooly Weeders owner tells the story that he originally had the sheep herd for their milk, he sold it for artisan cheeses. Then one day while they were near the Mondavi Vineyards, the sheep escaped their pen and started eating the Mondavi grass. And that began the business of hiring the sheep for grazing.

Wooly Weeders website

There are lightweight temporary wire fences that contain the sheep, electrified by two car batteries to keep the sheep in and predators out. Every 1-3 days the shepherd moved the fencing. Then he and the dog moved the flock to a new plot until all the grass was eaten.

The day they were all done, the shepherd collected and packed all the equipment (below).

You can see they’ve eaten all the tall grass and the bottoms of the shrubbery but not the unreachable green tops. This is an oak woodland, and fortunately they do not eat the oak trees.

Herding time was dramatic.

First the dog circled and re-circled the flock several times, following short one-word commands from the shepherd. In this photo the black dog is in the front doing her job.

As she circled the flock, the ruminants were forced to stand up and crowd together, and after about five minutes of this they became concentrated into a small space. Here the dog is in back on the left.

Once they were crowded into a herd, they ran in one direction, then back over where they just were. Back and forth, the herd zig-zagging over the same spot, led and dominated by the dog. Although it looked non-sensical and completely chaotic, there was a reason.

Stampeding over the same spot where they’ve been grazing for a day or two had a purpose: they were grinding their own manure into the ground.

Everything is dry here, so the dirt would get kicked up and a dusty tornado hovered over the flock.

Each section usually took 24-48 hours for the sheep to eat the grass. They ate voraciously.

Regardless of how steep the hill was or how rocky, the sheep mowed it all.

Sheep, like other ruminants, have jaws designed for chewing. You can see from the sheep skull below that they have front teeth on the lower jaw only. These teeth press against the gum of the upper jaw to tear off vegetation. Then the rear teeth grind the vegetation before it is swallowed.

Courtesy Wikipedia.

The sheep were never quiet. They have many vocalizations and many tones. They bleat (“baaa”), grunt, and snort. I’ve read there is rumbling when males are present during breeding.

The bleats are contact communication, and very distinctive. One sounded exactly like Chewbacca from Star Wars. Tones were low and deep as well as high.

We watched this sheeply spectacle so long that we got to be pretty good at recognizing individual calls.

None of it was baaaaaad.

There were dozens of nursing lambs in the flock, and their “feed me” bleating sounds were more high-pitched and insistent. They were often calling out to their maaaaaaaaa.

After three weeks, the sheep had finished mowing the whole area. They were herded into a long livestock truck, loaded up and off they went.

Hopefully we will all be baaaaaaaack next summer.

Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexander.

85 thoughts on “The Wooly Weeders

  1. How to get to see that in action! When we first moved here there were sheep in the field behind us and a little RV trailer we thought for the shepherd, but since that one summer they’ve been using cows but more and more I’m seeing sheep in the valley.

    • Yes, it was great to see the sheep in action in all their various modes. Thrilling even. And you’re right, Deborah, the little RV trailer for the shepherd was there too. Thanks for your contribution and visit, much appreciated.

    • Hi Wayne, great to “see” you today. The wine industry has a more complicated system with the grazing sheep and grapes than what I observed in the oak woodland. I don’t know all the details of winery operations in regard to the sheep. Thanks for your visit, it’s always a pleasure to have you stop by. Sending smiles to you up north.

  2. Driving through California I used to think how barren and ugly the hillsides are from being grazed right down, but you’ve put it in a new light – it helps prevent wildfires from taking hold and sweeping the countryside. I have a whole new respect for sheep.

    • Thanks, Anneli, I appreciate your insight on the sheep and the California hillsides. We all really do invest a lot of time and money into doing what is possible to prevent the wildfires. It’s much worse now as a result of global warming, so we do what we can. Thanks so much for your visit.

    • I enjoyed your upbeat comment, Mike, and feel the same way. It’s a win-win-win and actually really thrilling when the sheep come. I’m happy I could share it with you.

  3. My neighbor once hired a herd of goats to remove weeds and so many people came to see them, he had to put up no gawking signs. But it was hard not to stand at his fence and watch them!

    • I’m with you on that one, Jan, it is hard not to watch the grazing herds clearing up our vegetation. Really fun. I liked hearing about your neighbor’s goats. Thanks very much.

  4. Wooly wonderment and I smiled all through this one, Jet! My father kept a small flock of sheep, and he made out he was indifferent to them, but I would catch him unawares out in the fold from time to time, and could see they were his absolute delight even if their behaviours confounded him from time to time.
    Seeing a dog and shepherd in action is a thing to marvel at – such teamwork and skill!
    Thanks, Jet!

    • I so enjoyed your comment, pc, and the story about your father and his small flock. They are endearing creatures, and I can imagine confounding at times, too. And yes, the herding was truly a marvel to witness. We saw it several times because they moved quite often. If we could see the dusty air all kicked up, off we’d go to watch. A true joy to share it with you, my friend, I enjoyed your enthusiasm. Best wishes for a happy weekend.

    • Lovely to hear about the goats in Calgary, Frank. With all the Canadian landscapes you have photographed, I am guessing there will be a time when you capture the goat action too. I’m glad I could share the California scene with you. Thank you.

  5. I wonder if Amazon sells sheep, cheap? Great idea if you have large amount of acres. Great post, my friend. πŸ‘.. .. πŸ‘… πŸ‘…..

    • Fun to hear from you, Eilene, I’m smiling. I agree with you, a win-win way to keep the grass down and the dry landscapes safer. I appreciated your kind and fun words, thanks so much.

  6. This is akin to farmers using rented bees for pollination; just today I was reading about a cranberry farm where that’s done. Sheep are relatively uncommon here in Texas, but we have goats galore, and the perform similar tasks, although not on this scale. It’s easy to spot a ranch or farm where goats are being used to keep the underbrush down; the bottoms of the trees’ leaves always are munched off at the same height, and perfectly level.

    I love watching dogs work cattle, and it’s obviously just as much fun to see them working sheep. I have a friend who has a herding dog, and a lot of cats. When the dog gets bored or doesn’t have a job to do, it will begin herding the cats. Humans joke about the impossibility of doing that, but the dog gives it a good go. Their instinct to herd is amazing.

    • Lovely to hear from you, Linda, and I enjoyed your input on the bees and goats and the work they do. And I, too, enjoyed watching the dog work the sheep herd, so I see why you like it so much with the cattle. It was fascinating. She was clearly loving every minute of the herding. Sometimes if a sheep didn’t get into the mass, the dog jumped against the sheep and got it into place. Funny to think about the herding dog trying to herd cats. Always a joy to hear your stories, my friend, thank you.

  7. A brilliant solution to wildfire prevention. I’ve read of goats being used similarly, but the eat everything including oaks. I’m tempted to hire a herd for our invasive species problem down by our river.

    • I enjoyed your comment, Eliza, and thought about it. The sheep grazed this area last year and for a number of years previously. But this past spring the same area had invasive vetch came up as usual, overtaking the native lupine in many places. So I think although the sheep tear off all the vetch on the hillside, it doesn’t stop the vetch from growing the next spring, as the roots remain. It seems to slow down the spread, but doesn’t eliminate it. Just a thought. And I’m glad you got me thinking about it, Eliza. Cheers to you and this lovely earth of ours.

  8. This is so cool!! I was in Iceland in 2019 and learning about the sheep there was one of our favorite parts of the trip. We ended up buying a book half way around the Island bc we had so many questions! This was a very cool read and fascinating info!

    • I am delighted you enjoyed the Wooly Weeders post, Michelle. Your Iceland trip sounds really fun and adventurous. I have been on many trips, and reading up before getting there or while there made the trip so much more interesting and fulfilling and exciting. Thanks very much for your visit today.

  9. I can not help but smile at the wooly weeders. We have had goats used like this in Calgary, although sadly for some reason not this season. It seems to make such good sense on so many levels. The herding would be especially fascinating.
    Thanks for sharing this good news story Jet. Still smiling here.

    • So wonderful to hear from you, Sue. Your comment about smiling from my post got me smiling. I am delighted you enjoyed the Wooly Weeders, and I agree with you, makes good sense on so many levels. Thanks so much for stopping by, and please give a hello to Dave for me too.

  10. Was not aware they employed the sheep in that manner out there – very creative. With all the agility dog shows we go to, I have the pleasure of watching all the herding dog competitions that are usually going on at the same time. Always fun to watch and surprised at how skilled those breeds are and probably more important, how much fun those dogs have doing their thing. Thanks for the background Jet, enjoyed it.

    • Hi Brian, I’m glad you have had the pleasure of watching herding dogs, and I’m sure their competitions must be fascinating as well. And yes, it is great to see how much joy they get out of it. Thanks so much for stopping by and joining the conversation.

  11. I so enjoyed this post, Jet. What fun to be able to see these sheep up close, and the service they provide for CA vineyards as well as being fed. I have an uncle who has some acreage in TN and he has kept goats for years so that he doesn’t have to mow. But they are family pets, come inside and watch TV with him and my aunt. πŸ™‚ We gifted him a goat from Heifer International for his 90th birthday. I made a card for him where I did a color pencil of a goat. They look so much like sheep. This was a great post, friend. Not baaaaaad at all. πŸ™‚

    • I chuckled as I read your lovely words, LuAnne, relaying your story about your uncle and his goats. Especially the part about them watching TV with him and his wife. That’s so funny. I enjoyed hearing about the goat gift and card, too. Thanks so much for stopping baaaaaa. πŸ˜€

  12. A delightful post, Jet. And thanks to Athena for the photos that illustrated your post so well. I love the concept of using sheep, goats, etc, for trimming grass. It is ever so much more in tune with nature than the weed whacker I used for our Oregon property. Given California’s extreme fire danger, what a contribution our wooly four legged companions are making. –Curt

    • I appreciated your lovely comment, Curt, thank you. Yes, it was a great trend that started all from an accident where the sheep got out of their pen and ate the grass at the winery. And I agree with you, it is so much more environmentally savvy in so many ways. My thanks for your visit today.

      • Sheep and goats can do an amazing job at trimming weeds down to the ground. Sometimes too much. Remember the cattle and sheep wars of the Old West? πŸ™‚ –Curt

      • Yes, sheep and goats and all the domesticated livestock we have in this country–they all have a history and it’s interesting. Many thanks for your visit, Curt.

  13. It’s a wonderful thing.
    Still, it’s crazy that we have to haul the sheep around. There should be regional balances.
    However, we’ve messed that up.
    I’ve read many articles about honey bees being transported around (their hives) in semi trucks to pollinate crops.
    My gf had a poison ivy problem in her yard. She hired a goat guy. He brought the goats in a truck, and for 2 days they ate the poison ivy. She said the goats were adorable, and the poison ivy is GONE.

    This may be a thing of the future.

    Love this article, the sheep and I adore the sheep dog!

  14. Such a great idea. There is a goatherd here who’s flock performs similar work. There are also sheep in the foothills, but those are grazing allotments for an agricultural herd.

  15. ​I simply loved this post. What could be better than an organic ​solution to a fire hazard. I’ve heard of folks beginning to use sheep for this sort of thing, but it’s nice to know the practice seems to be gaining traction. I bet watching the dogs in action was a treat! Sure beats all the noise and stink (not to mention pollution of using gas powered mowers!

    • Yes, it was really great watching the whole practice of the Wooly Weeders unfold in front of us, Gunta. And the herding was so exciting. And it was truly a joy to share it with you, thanks so very much for your lovely visits and comment.

  16. This was an interesting post. Thanks for giving us an insight into sheep grazing. So many sheep and each of them knew like they knew what to do, or probably also really hungry. Seemed like they were calm amidst the chaos. I like the analogy of the sheep sounding like Chewbacca. Looking at the photos, it seemed some are woolier than others, and have varying colours to their coats. No matter how they look or how they do their job, it is a very important job helping vineyards and minimising fire hazards. Wonderful photos by Athena. Hope you are enjoying your summer, Jet.

    • Thanks so much for your kind and astute comments. Yes, some were woolier than others and the colors did vary. Most were all white but some had a patch or two of brown, and one was almost all brown. And I agree, it was a very important job they did for us, and a joy watching them, too. Thank you, Mabel, great to see you today.

  17. You told this story really well. I’m amazed by how efficiently this large operation went. By the way, the eyes of the sheep you photographed are set very far apart. I wonder if all breeds of sheep are like that. Neil S.

    • Thanks so much for your kind comment, Neil. I, too, was impressed by the sheep’s eyes–their shape, the two colors and the way they are set far apart. I don’t know how the other breeds’ eyes are. Thanks very much for your comment and visit.

    • I so enjoyed your lovely comment, Belinda, and am delighted you liked the sheep post. I, too, think it is a wonderful and environmentally savvy way to tend the land. My warmest thanks.

  18. Such a great way to take care of the growth. The photo of them all together is amazing! And interesting that they have them stamp down their remnants. I used to see herds occasionally doing their work in parks in SF. Better than mowers and blowers! Thanks, Jet. πŸ™‚

    • I’m happy you enjoyed the Wooly Weeders, Jane, and I’m glad you’re familiar with their Bay Area presence. I agree with you, it’s an environmentally sound way to manage the growth. My thanks for your visits, much enjoyed.

  19. I LOVED reading this, Jet. All the years I lived in Marin County, I never knew about the value of sheep grazing, and that they were used as a fire deterrent. My son just bought a home in Napa with several acres of dry grass. Perhaps I’ll suggest he ‘rent’ a few sheep. Even the Tiburon hills could use a flock or two. Oh, and I’m reading (listening to, actually) the book An Immense World by Ed Young about all animals, great and small, and how they use their senses and how they communicate. I hope the book includes sheep. Fascinating how they converse in their own bleating language.

    • Oh so lovely to have you stop by, Pam, and thank you for your wonderful comment. Yes, the grazing sheep and goats are more popular these days, with the increase in wildfires. And it is really fun to be so close to them for a few days. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post, thanks for stopping by. (Point Reyes tomorrow, a place I am certain you are familiar with.)

  20. I love reading about this, and your pictures. Goats used for keeping weeds down, I had heard of. Sheep, not so much.

    We had a neighbor whose property was overrun with Himalayan blackberries, so she got a goat to keep in her yard. The goat would only eat the blackberries when he ran out of anything else to eat. He liked to sit by the back door, or go into the house. So he was the invasive species in the end.

  21. Love this post Jet! Sheep are dear to my heart. That’s a lot of work going on for shepherd and dogs. Thank you for sharing and expanding my knowledge. πŸ˜ŽπŸ™πŸ’›

    • Yes, I can imagine sheep are dear to your heart, Val, having come from the land of Scotland. I am so delighted I could brighten your day with these lovely creatures and the benefit they are to my community. And yes, it was a lot of hard work for the shepherd and the dog, they were always working and up at all hours. Many thanks for your lovely visit.

  22. Pingback: The Wooly Weeders β€” Jet Eliot – Thomas Fire Information and Stories

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