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American RBST Foundation Flock USA0001
British Registered Soay sheep

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Conservation Grazing and Forest Fuel Reduction

Conservation Grazing

The Lilliputian Soay is utilized for conservation grazing in both Great Britain and the United States. Lands that are ideally suited for wildlife habitat, for some agricultural purposes or for reforestation projects are being reclaimed from overgrowth without pesticides or bulldozers as a result of the use of sheep. Because it can thrive on marginal browse and can adjust to an assortment of challenging conditions, the Soay adapts to a wide range of environments where more domesticated breeds would fail. Additionally its small size and light weight make it appropriate for sensitive sites where heavier animals such as Highland Cattle or Exmoor Ponies could trample or foul fragile plants and soils. Rookeries and even butterfly habitats can benefit from foraging Soay. In the US this concept is just being introduced, but in the UK heritage breeds are being used increasingly for a variety of schemes. Soay sheep are found in such historic locations as Cheddar Gorge (home of Cheddar Cheese) in Somerset, England to keep scrub in and around the Gorge and its caves from taking over. Even on St. Kilda concern about excessive growth of ungrazed sward prompted the Marquess of Bute to bring the sheep from Soay to Hirta when he purchased the islands back in the 1930’s.

Before After
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In the spring the sheep were turned into a small wooded area to eradicate the virulent poison oak that so often takes over in parts of southern Oregon. Several weeks later “Chivo”, a Maremma Livestock Guarding Dog that lives with the Soay, surveys their work upon its completion.

Forest Fuel Reduction

 In the drier parts of the western United States, where forest fires are an increasing threat to man and beast alike, the Soay can likewise be used for fuel reduction. Many of the shrubs that grow under the canopy here and compete with trees for water (manzanita, ceanothus, and scotchbroom) are extremely flammable. Because of an eighty-plus year policy of fire suppression they have grown to staggering levels. We are now learning that small and frequent fires have historically been an important part of the forest’s ecology. What we have done in quelling them for so long has been to allow combustibles to build up creating a potential for conflagration. By thinning to reduce overcrowding and using livestock as one means of eliminating these ladder fuels the forest becomes safer, the trees become healthier and are thus better able to withstand blazes when they do come.

 

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Things to Consider

Containment of the animals and predator control are two issues that must be addressed before the sheep can be used for this purpose, but field fencing and livestock protection dogs have enabled us to take advantage of a very effective means of reducing flammables on our own woodland. The sheep are not right for all situations, but they have worked well for us and have been easy on most mature trees (tough on seedlings) but death on the poison oak and other noxious weeds that we wanted eradicated.

 

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