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.
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.
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.