How Sheep Are Helping the Planet
Some unlikely new heroes are fighting climate change ─ American sheep and the people who care for them.
While sheep have always been known as a source for meat, milk and wool, sheep are now being recognized for their abilities to remove invasive species, increase biodiversity, support wildfire prevention and make other industries more sustainable.
Take the vineyards, for example. Sheep are being used to replace mowers, fertilizers and herbicides. Unlike machinery, sheep require zero diesel fuel to operate. And unlike herbicides, they’re toxin-free. Using sheep doesn’t just spare the vineyard soil from unnecessary wear and tear, it also saves the vintner money (an estimated $100 per acre).
According to a grazing study done by University of Idaho, soil health, water capacity and biodiversity all increase when sheep graze on agricultural land. Another recent study noted soil is better able to capture and hold carbon after sheep grazing (and presumably, the liberal distribution of droppings).
The United States is covered in land that’s been overgrazed, overworked or otherwise depleted. Sheep are a proven method of naturally restoring soil to a level that can support healthy vegetation. That’s because sheep are portable and nimble and suitable to graze almost any environment – they have no trouble climbing steep or rocky slopes. And they easily digest grasses, branches and weeds.
Shepherd Alan McAnelly has seen these changes in his own fields. The longtime veterinarian retired on a patch of land near Hamilton, Texas – only to find that the soil had been sucked bare of nutrients by decades of irresponsible cotton farming. He brought in a few sheep to combat the invasive weeds, which was about all that would grow there. Since then, he has seen the impossible happen: the ground is becoming rich and soft again, and he’s able to farm cover crops to further nurture the soil.
Regenerative farming, says McAnelly, is nothing new. In fact, this holistic, conservationist approach draws from farming methods that existed long ago. McAnelly says sheep are perfect livestock to raise on a regenerative farming environment. “For their digestive system and how they utilize water, sheep are made for grazing pastures. They’re better than any other livestock for using all the weeds.”
Sheep are also small enough to fit under solar panels and are being used more and more for solar grazing – an ingenious way of doubling the economic value of land used in renewable-energy production. As a veterinarian, rancher and executive director of the American Solar Grazing Association, Judy St. Leger understands the symbiotic relationship between sheep and solar fields. The fields offer a protected area for sheep to graze, shade during the hottest part of the day, and plenty of vegetation. Sheep keep the vegetation low and cycle nutrients back into the soil. “With agricultural lands shrinking, anywhere we can bring agriculture alongside other industries to benefit the land and keep agriculture sustainable is good.”
By thinning the vegetation from rugged hillsides and forests, sheep flocks are also being used to prevent fires.
As the hazards of climate change, from wildfires to invasive species to erosion close in on her beloved corner of Southern California, Shepherdess Brittany Cole Bush of Shepherdess Land and Livestock uses her sheep for a number of purposes, from clearing brush with the potential to become fuel for a wildfire to helping create vineyard and orchard land. She describes it as “the marriage of innovative approaches and land stewardship.” Simply put, “our land needs to be tended.”
“When you menu American Lamb, you are supporting shepherds and their families. You are also supporting sheep and the amazing grazing work they do to sustain and improve land,” says Megan Wortman, executive director of the American Lamb Board.