People often ask me about what sheep will eat, and how their grazing style differs from goats. There is a lot of interest in the media now in using small ruminants as “utility grazers” to clear weedy areas, mow difficult slopes, or graze and prune vineyards and orchards. It’s an appealing notion: less human labor and machine fuel is required (though neither goes down to zero), and ruminants lay down nutrient as they take them up, in the form of urine and manure. They also trample a lot of plants, which adds carbon to the soil; and their small hooves churn up the soil surface, making it more receptive to over-seeding with desired plants or grasses.
Though goats have the most noted reputation for being good land clearers, sheep are actually pretty good at it too, and even have some advantages over goats. In general, sheep supposedly prefer to eat about 70-80% grass, and 20-30% broadleaf plants. Goats are the reverse: they prefer to eat mostly “overhead browse” and very little grass and ground plants. But of course, both species will accept something less than their preferred diet.
I find that my sheep will eat almost everything that grows here. They definitely enjoy many things we consider weeds: dandelion, buttercup, clover, blackberries, comfrey, horse tail, lambs quarter, and morning glory. The only thing they completely avoid is nettle, and I believe goats do eat those. My sheep also don’t prefer thistles (we have both Canada thistle and bull thistle here); but they will eat them (tenderly!) in winter once the grass is gone and thistle is the only green thing left. My sheep love blackberry leaves and the tender shoots, but leave behind the canes. So, for clearing, it’s still necessary to follow them and machete out the canes. Once this is done, however, the sheep will hammer on the blackberry vines as they try to regrow; so over time, sheep can help kill off this obnoxious invasive species.
I believe sheep can offer an advantage for land clearing over goats in that they will also eat the grass down more aggressively. And, they are less “clever” about escaping, so are a little easier to manage.
Sheep are also great for grazing orchards and grape vineyards. Sheep do like tree leaves, and evergreen needles, and will generally prune trees as high as they can reach. Not only do they munch on leaves, they can be hard on small trees when they grab a branch and yank, often ripping the branch off in a less-than-ideal way. Sheep also sometimes eat tree bark. At my house, they especially like alder bark. And, they scratch on tree trunks, which can be a stress on the root system.
We have a young fruit orchard, so we have been cautious about the sheep having access to it thus far. In past years, I fenced them in between the rows, to cut down on the mowing, and take advantage of that extra graze. Sometimes some sheep would escape, however, and do some damage before they were noticed- especially to small “whip” fruit trees we’d recently planted.
This year, I proactively surrounded any younger, fragile trees with a round of wire. I didn’t anchor them, and merely hooked a few wire ends to keep them round. We need to be able to remove them easily so we can mow around the base of the trees during summer. But even though the hoops aren’t that sturdy, they’ve worked so far to keep stray sheep out.
We also grazed the sheep through our main orchard area for the first time this year, right in with the trees. Conservatively, I only put the sheep in there for a day, sizing the fencing square to where I knew there would be a generous amount of grass. They still pruned the trees and scratched on them; but since there was enough grass, it kept them from getting too aggressive with the trees. I cringed as the itchy, shedding sheep rubbed their big 150 pound lard butts on our youthful tree trunks; and reached as high as their tippy toes could afford to nibble shoots and flowers. (I’ve read that some vineyards choose short-statured sheep like Shetlands, to limit the height to which they can prune!)
Overall, it turned out well. The trees got a little more pruning than one may like, but our plan is to just go ahead and allow the trees to be shaped to sheep height over time. It’s a lot of work to mow an orchard: we can do the bulk of it on the tractor (involving a lot of tedious turning and back-and-forth driving), but still also end up doing a lot of string trimming to keep the grass down near the trunks. If the sheep can do this for us for a mere fifteen minute investment in setting up fencing, this is great!