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Sheep Vegetation Management in British Columbia, Canada

Permaculture principle #11:

Use edges and value the marginal. The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place, these are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system. — Holmgren

Let’s talk about clearcuts in Northern BC. Clearcuts are edges, between the forest and cleared land where fast growing broad-leafed plants like fireweed and alder outcompete conifer seedlings. We think of clearcuts as ugly but they are a valuable food source for browsers like deer and sheep.

Principle #5:

Use and value renewable resources… The proverb ‘let nature take its course’ reminds us that control over nature through excessive resource use and high technology is not only expensive, but can have a negative effect on our environment." — Holmgren

It’s cheaper and easier for big forest companies to control broad-leafed vegetation by helicopter spraying with herbicides. But what are the costs? Yes it’s cheaper for the company but the costs are borne by the critters downstream, and some of those who suffer from the toxic effects of herbicides are people.

About four years ago I met an Australian by the name of Dennis Loxton. This man is wonderfully articulate. In less than two minutes he had me fascinated by the idea of sheep farming and silviculture — a combination I had never heard of before. And the story that he told me about his career and his vision tie in very nicely with permaculture principles and local resilience.

In Australia there were 180 million sheep at peak, before the latest period of droughts. Loxton got his training in wool classing or grading. He knows his Merino wool. Loxton came to Canada in the seventies and started in the tree planting business. After seventeen years in silviculture he decided to combine his previous experience in Australia with his silviculture business — and sheep vegetation management of tree farms in BC became a reality.

Loxton did the research. He tested Merinos and dairy sheep. He found that the clearcuts in the coastal forest were so lush that the dairy sheep could breed and lactate their lambs on the clearcuts, then be taken back to the farm to be milked in the winter. Most of the lambs could be sold but the best could be kept as breeders and milkers for the next year.

Well, what about predators I hear you say. How do you keep the sheep out in the clearcuts from being eaten by wolves and bears? Loxton maintains that the solution is livestock guardian dogs. In seventeen years of sheep herding and tree planting, averaging about six thousand sheep per year, he lost only eight sheep, thanks to the dogs.

According to Loxton, the most expensive dairy product in the world is sheep cheese. And globally there is more milk produced from sheep than cows. "The thing about sheep", says Loxton, "is that they can walk right to the market. They can deliver themselves right to the consumer."

Here’s the beauty of it — sheep don’t like conifers. Sheep won’t eat pine or spruce, or fir, but they’ll eat the fireweed that grows in the clearing and competes with the seedlings for sunlight. Then they leave behind a valuable manure that provides much needed nutrients for the depleted soil, accelerating the growth of the seedlings. According to Loxton, all the silviculture plantations that were sheep grazed are in superior condition to the plantations that weren’t.

"Here’s the really interesting thing about northern BC — there’s no bloody food up here." Yep, we in the north are totally dependent on grocery stores and supply lines thousands of miles long to survive. "One day", he muses, "the truck won’t come — and we’ll be sitting here with no food. I was brought up in the Australian Outback. I learned the importance of bringing food home from the land."

Principle #2: "Catch and store energy". Sheep turn thousands of tons of vegetation into meat, dairy, wool, and fertilizer. Feeding them on clearcuts takes them off the farmer’s fields in the summer, eating hay that could otherwise go towards feeding them in the winter. It should be a win-win situation for sheep farmers, consumers, and forestry companies. Instead, the sheep vegetation management business, which, in its heyday was up to 50,000 sheep in BC, is down to zero now. What with the pine beetle, collapse of the housing bubble, and the end of Skeena Cellulose, one of Loxton’s best customers, it’s apparently cheaper for forestry companies to use herbicides.

Am I repeating myself here? As Loxton opines — "Monsanto wins". Not if I can help it. It’s about time we saw to our own food security here in the North, instead of foolishly believing that that food truck will always be there when we need it.

9 Comments

  1. Hello!

    We are up in the NWT of Canada and I truly would like to talk more with Loxton we have just in the early stages of building a Northern Farm Training Institute and we have been seriously looking at sheep and reindeer as staple animals. Please let me know how to contact you. Jackie

  2. Thank-you Charles I just had a great talk with Dennis and he made an excellent comment to me about only giving forest licences to companies that will include agri forestry methods, I agree so much with what he said. Wonderful positive person and I’m looking forwards to meeting him soon one day.

  3. Hi Charles, I am researching the venture of vegetation management using sheep, and if you could answer some questions or point me in the right direction of some producers I would really appreciate it.

    Thanks,
    Emily

    1. Emily, Dennis Loxton is your goto guy for this. What I know is contained in this article. Dennis was very involved in the sheep vegetation management scene, and he can tell you everything you need to know. Contact me by email, the adress is the second comment from the top. Where are you located?

  4. I am very interested in this topic. I live in an area where logging has traditionally been the roots to almost the entire economy. Farming is growing, only because the loggin industry is suffering in recent years and cattle prices are sky rocketing. We keep a small flock of sheep and would be very interested in more information on this topic, specifically how to get started, pitching it to the local logging organization. We have already battled them on the topic of spraying, and had a minor victory. We live just outside Algonquin Park in Ontario. Large numbers of black bears, cyotes and wolves. We have lost one animal in ten years to a predetor, thanks to two large Great Pyrenese. They have also kept countless moose from walking through our fences. I plan to experiment with feeding sheep in our owned forrests as well as on a few hunt camps that the owners want to be kept cleared. Any more information on the topic or how to pitch it would be appreciated.

  5. Hi Charles, a bit late, but I just want to say “thanks” for putting me in touch with Jackie. She is wonderful. I went to NWT for a visit and although a bit nippy at 1st, I had a great trip. Thanks again, from Dennis.

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