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Clearing Brushy Land with Icelandic Sheep

 
Posts: 16
Location: Cascade Foothills, Washington
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Hi Everyone!

I wanted to create and share a little public journal about my experience so far using sheep to help clear my land and develop it into silvopasture. I have a lot of stuff I'm trying to do all at once, so there's a lot of topics I'll try and cover as I research them, hopefully answering some people's questions with my anecdotal experience! I had a really hard time finding information like this when I was researching breeds, so I'm hoping this is helpful to anyone looking!

Sheep Breed: I got 5 Icelandic sheep about a month ago. My reasons for getting this particular breed, in order of need, were brush clearing, meat production, and wool/milk and cheese being of least concern. I chose sheep over goats because of all the stories I found online about goats being master escape artists, and decided I didn't need that headache. My 'pasture' is along a main road as well, so I don't need escaped goats becoming roadkill. :( I chose the Icelandic breed because they seemed to be the most common of the 'primitive' breeds in the US, meaning I won't have to travel crazy far to get genetic diversity in the future, and being a primitive breed, they're supposed to be willing to forage as much as they graze. I'm also a giant Swede so 'Viking Sheep' just felt right. ;)

Location and my Land: I live in Western Washington, in the Cascade Foothills, on 6.6 acres. We're in a cool and rainy second-growth Douglas Fir forest, so most everything I do will be working around and under the firs, as I'm trying to remove as few as possible. The area that I have the sheep is an old orchard, about an acre right now. The land has been super neglected; I don't think anyone has tried any landscaping for 20-30 years. Before putting sheep in, it was basically an impassable mass of blackberries and salmonberries in the lower level, and a variety of native tree species. I think the Firs were cleared out in most of the area for the orchard, so there's just a few in the area around the edges, and many more back toward my house past the edge of the original orchard. My goal is to convert the floor of the forest into silvopasture and add a bunch more fruit trees, in between native and other species to coppice for sheep forage.  Right now my main concern is clearing off the brush and 'trimming' the native trees in the area to ~4 feet so I can coppice them.

Brush Clearing and Preferred Species: So on the one hand, sheep are not perfect brush-clearers. That was my expectation, and again I chose sheep over goats to avoid trying to contain escapees. On the other hand they've done some things I didn't expect, and I'm overall happy with how they're doing. The blackberries and salmonberries together grow into this apparently impenetrable mass - about 8 feet tall, with lots of dead stems in the bottom layer, and a crown of leaves and vines across the top. I expected the sheep to nibble at the edges, but what they do instead is crash directly through the brush and build little trails and tunnels through them, eating every leaf within reach of them and breaking down all the dead sticks and stems. This thinning enables me to go along behind them and cut down the rest of the brush at the base, then they follow along behind me and chew up the leaves off the top. So not a perfect system, but some of these stems are 1 inch thick or bigger, and I don't think even goats would touch that. (maybe I'm wrong??)  I spend maybe an hour a day cutting brush down for them, which they prefer over their hay, so I've basically stopped feeding them hay. I give them some grain/sunflower seeds/beet pulp/alfalfa pellets morning and night just because I don't know the nutrition of the brush and trees yet, and want to make sure they're reasonably balanced.

I'm paying close attention to what species they like and prefer over others. I'm also keeping watch on the trees - anything around 2-6 inches in diameter I'm trying to coppice. It's not a good time of year to do this, so whatever survives survives, and I'll replace the rest with more coppiceable trees or fruit/nut trees this coming spring and over the next few years.

For preference, I'm comparing to Oso Berry, which is their absolute favorite so far, and they'll eat before anything else.

For coppiceability, I don't have much personal experience with it yet. There's a few cut or damaged trees on my property that show pretty clearly which trees do well with it, and some that are 'common' knowledge (for permies lol)

Brush Species:
Himalayan Blackberry
Pref: normal
Oso Berry
Pref: very high
Copp: not sure but I'd like to try it. They grow as little trees if left alone, but the sheep are skinning the bark off so they might not survive.
Salmonberry
Pref: high
Rhododendron
Pref: haven't seen them eat it, and it's also definitely very poisonous (there's only one sad one in the pasture, don't worry)
Huckleberry
Pref: normal
Native Blackberry
Pref: haven't seen them eat it, and it's more of a small ground cover/trip hazard

Tree Species:
Douglas Fir
Pref: too tall to eat but I bet they wouldn't like it
Copp: probably not good, and also why would you?
Red Cedar
Pref: saw them eat some, they didn't like it
Copp: very good, but maybe just for firewood/lumber
Black Cottonwood
Pref: normal
Copp: Don't know yet
Big Leaf Maple
Pref: high
Copp: very good
Vine Maple
Pref: high
Copp: very good (anecdotal)
Hazelnut
Pref: normal
Copp: very good (I have Eastern Filbert Blight, so they're coppicing themselves!)
Apple
Pref: haven't pruned any leafy branches yet
Copp: don't do that
Pear
Pref: high (some heavily pear-laden branches broke off :(   )
Copp: also don't do that
Holly
Pref: none - poisonous berries, and they don't eat the leaves
Copp: no reason to
Red Alder
Pref: normal
Copp: not sure yet, and I'm very curious because I have a lot and they like it. I assume it will do well.

Ferns:
Bracken Fern
Pref: too late in the season to see them eat it
Sword Fern
Pref: low to normal preference (there's still some around, but I've seen them eat it)

Other species that are around but I haven't seen them eat yet and/or are not in their pasture:
Willow
Douglas Maple (not sure I even have any of these)
lots of minor species I'm surely missing haha

Species I want to add:
A literal laundry list of fruit and nut trees, and a list I'm working on of good coppicing/forage/tree hay trees. I'll update when I feel like I have a 'finished' list.

Final thoughts
I'm really happy so far with my sheep. I'm probably biased, but they're just fun and funny to hang out with! I love the way they scream for food in the morning, and how they fight over nothing. And how they wrap themselves in blackberry vines and rake them across my legs. They're just fun animals!

I'm also happy with the way the brush clearing is working out - there's just a ton of woody material on the ground now, and since I think I have pretty poor soil, I'm looking forward to it breaking down hugel mound-style and fertilizing the soil. I'm seeding pasture grass, legumes, and white clover as I go - the newly cleared sections are getting plenty of seed. I think it should grow nicely, cover the woody material, and help it retain moisture and break down rapidly. The best part will be when all the brush starts to come back next spring and the sheep chew it back down! I was alarmed this spring when everything I had cut grew to last year's height in a few months, and it looked like I had done nothing! Healthy rootstock is no joke, and it really cemented the need for some kind of browsers.

Thanks for reading! I'll update as I learn more. I hope to learn more about tree hay and how to develop healthy silvopasture in my area. Something I might do is contact Washington State University (they specialize in agriculture for our state) and see if they have data on native species nutrient content, or even send in samples of mine to be tested! (if it's not crazy expensive) I'm very curious how nutrient content degrades when tree leaves are cut and dried, and spring vs summer vs fall cutting, etc.
 
gardener
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Location: Eilean a' Cheo
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Good write up Bartholomew. I don't keep sheep myself, but we have a lot of 'free rangers' here that will happily come in and browse if I leave a gate open!  The local sheep tend to be black face and cheviot , with some Texels, although those tend to be pastured better. I'm sure it isn't true that they eat everything, but they can certainly spoil a garden!  My neighbours have hebridians and they are small and pretty.
I don't think that the sheep will do much eating of the bracken fern - here that is a pernicious weed on the open hillsides anywhere the soil is better.  The sheep do keep it down a little by trampling, but would have to be stocked pretty densely in the early summer to knock it back much. I've not seen them eating it. The best way to reduce it I've found is to cut it midsummer just as it gets to full size, that knocks it back and it gradually decreases, alternatively shade it out with trees!
 
pollinator
Posts: 517
Location: Northern Puget Sound, Zone 8A
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The cottonwoods will coppice like crazy.  The stumps can be difficult to fully kill unless you keep at them.  They're of no real economic value (they make poor firewood, and mills won't pay over pulp prices if they take them at all - I couldn't give away a full log truck worth of clear straight logs), so if you can use them to feed your sheep that's likely their best and highest purpose.
 
Bartholomew Olson
Posts: 16
Location: Cascade Foothills, Washington
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Nancy Reading wrote:Good write up Bartholomew. I don't keep sheep myself, but we have a lot of 'free rangers' here that will happily come in and browse if I leave a gate open!  The local sheep tend to be black face and cheviot , with some Texels, although those tend to be pastured better. I'm sure it isn't true that they eat everything, but they can certainly spoil a garden!  My neighbours have hebridians and they are small and pretty.
I don't think that the sheep will do much eating of the bracken fern - here that is a pernicious weed on the open hillsides anywhere the soil is better.  The sheep do keep it down a little by trampling, but would have to be stocked pretty densely in the early summer to knock it back much. I've not seen them eating it. The best way to reduce it I've found is to cut it midsummer just as it gets to full size, that knocks it back and it gradually decreases, alternatively shade it out with trees!



Yep, they're not going to be allowed near any real vegetables! I assume something like a cabbage would be like candy to them, seeing as they're eating tree leaves haha. I don't have much of a problem with bracken ferns, they're actually one of my favorite ferns around here. The sword ferns are a bit worse because if they get trampled they turn ugly pretty easily, and they're tough to dig up, with their woody rhizome. We'll see how they do, I expect there won't be too many ferns long-term with more sunshine and trampling hooves.
 
Bartholomew Olson
Posts: 16
Location: Cascade Foothills, Washington
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Andrew Mayflower wrote:The cottonwoods will coppice like crazy.  The stumps can be difficult to fully kill unless you keep at them.  They're of no real economic value (they make poor firewood, and mills won't pay over pulp prices if they take them at all - I couldn't give away a full log truck worth of clear straight logs), so if you can use them to feed your sheep that's likely their best and highest purpose.



That's a great point, now that I think of it I have seen a lot of cut/broken cottonwood stumps with a ton of sprouts! I'll have to dig a little more for nutritional content on them. They have that wonderful smell in springtime when their buds are coming out, they smell really sweet, so I'm guessing the sheep will love the young leaves. I think you're right, that if I can use them for that, that's a great purpose for them. Right now all they do is fall over and build soil. The fir forest was cut down around 40 years ago on the ~250 acres next to us, and it's all huge cottonwoods now - they fall and break constantly and build the soil for the next generation of evergreens.
 
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