Shaking off their reputation for environmental damage, sheep can have an important role in conserving natural resources. Sometimes, they need some conserving of their own.
Preserving the Landscape
When it comes to conservation, few names are bigger than John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and advocate for Yosemite as a National Park. In his 1896 book The Mountains of California, Muir wrote about the loss of wilderness in a lush valley. “But the arch destroyers are the shepherds, with their flocks of hoofed locusts, sweeping over the ground like a fire,” he wrote. The phrase “hoofed locust” would become one of his most famous turns of phrase, and after hearing it I took it as a given that sheep brought devastation to the landscape.
When I repeated the phrase to Jeanne Carver when we spoke for the Long Thread Podcast, she not only raised a spirited defense of the role of sheep in her landscape, she cited data to back it up. Independent auditors have measured the carbon captured each year in the soil of her ranch and documented a net reduction of thousands of pounds. Through careful grazing practices, the ranch also restored the health of their waterways enough to restore the wild salmon who return to spawn. Far from devastating the landscape, her sheep have a role in conserving the natural resources.
In “The Golden Hoof” (Spin Off Winter 2015), A. Sabine Schröder-Gravendyck, DVM, discussed the role that sheep play in maintaining dikes and grasslands. She commented, “Sheep are said to have ‘den goldenen Tritt,’ or golden step, because of their ability to graze the grassy dikes quite short without injuring these important earthworks.” And when we spoke about her sheep on the Long Thread Podcast, Kristin Nicholas talked about how her flock helps conserve the pastures in their traditional New England farm.
A pair of Romeldale/CVM (California Variegated Mutant) lambs. Once classed as Critical on the Livestock Conservancy’s priority list, their status has been upgraded. Photo by Christa Tippmann
Sometimes the sheep themselves need some preservation. The Livestock Conservancy has pursued a variety of methods to keep heritage breeds of livestock from cattle to rabbits from disappearing, and Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em is certainly one of their catchiest. Begun in 2019, the project encourages fiber artists to purchase and use fiber from animals listed on their Conservation Priority List and participate in a multiyear challenge (complete with passport and stickers).
And conservation efforts do pay off. As the Conservancy noted in 2018, “The Romeldale/CVM, on the other hand, moved up to Threatened from the Critical list, likely due to good promotion of the breed. These sheep are productive and appear likely to maintain their upward population trajectory.”
The Ross Farm, a Pennsylvania Century Farm, raises not only threatened sheep but a variety of heritage-breed livestock and poultry on their historic property. Knitters can find a range of Shave ‘Em to Save ‘Em yarns on the farm’s website.