Sheep, cattle and grass

by James Alexander-Sinclair

Sheep. It is not often enough that the role of sheep in our landscape is fully acknowledged.

View of sheep grazing through a garden gateI have to admit that, from a practical point of view, this blog post will not have a lot to offer to anybody who gardens in towns and cities. But, rather than turning away in disgust, I would like you to come along with me purely out of interest. One of the great things about knowledge is that not all of it has to be useful. Although there may be a lull in the conversation one day into which you can drop a small pearl of, not exactly wisdom, but faint interest.

Sheep. It is not often enough that the role of sheep in our landscape is fully acknowledged. I was thinking about it when I was in Cumbria the other day and again in Dumfries and Galloway. (Close neighbours but different visits. It’s like buses - I don't visit the North West for years and years and then I go twice in five days.) The fields there are very green and very well cropped. This is due to the hundreds of sheep.

Cows make quite a mess of fields because, firstly and most obviously, they are heavier than sheep. Secondly they tend to wrap their long tongues around clumps of grass and pull. Thirdly (please look away if you are of delicate sensitivity) cowpats are larger and wetter than neatly packaged sheep droppings. Also hill pastures (being hilly) drain better.

But if you were trying to maintain a well ordered and good-looking field then it is good to use both types of animal as the cattle do a sort of scarifying, while the sheep nibble it all down to a close crop. Sheep are much more selective and fussy feeders than cattle but are happy to graze quite close to cowpats. Cattle, unsurprisingly, are keen to avoid cowpats but are less discerning and will eat any grass.

However, for many wild flower meadows cattle are not required - too much fertility. For example the meadow at Coton Manor is managed by cutting it for hay in summer and then it is grazed by sheep through the autumn. The haymaking scatters seed from all the flowers. The sheep then tread the seed into the ground without allowing the grass to get long enough to interfere with germination. The result is a spectacular (and useful) meadow in summer.

So now you know more than you really wanted to know about sheep. If your thirst for knowledge requires further sating then you could read this.

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Gardeners' World Web User 31/01/2011 at 17:23

Hi James! It should be noted that sheep can be quite DESTRUCTIVE. They tend to yank the plants they feed on up from the roots (killing the plant) and their sharp little hooves can further a pastures destruction. We actually had "range wars" over here in the US, with sheep being dubbed "range maggots" by cattle farmers. My people were sheep farmers that ended up giving them up and going to cattle in the 20's because a great-great uncle was shot and killed by cattlemen. And the wars were heating up and cattle were winning the day. If you can't beat them, join them... Sheep are cute and fun to watch, but not so good for the land...

Gardeners' World Web User 31/01/2011 at 18:08

Hello James Enjoyed reading your blog about sheep. I think they are wonderful creatures, they produce beautiful woolly lambs who frolic and gambol in the meadows. On a hot summer night the sheep can be heard baaing in the fields a very relaxing sound. They keep the sheep dogs in work being rounded up and moved from barn to field. Overall I think sheep are underated and I do enjoy lamb and mint sauce but that is another story.

Gardeners' World Web User 31/01/2011 at 18:16

This blog reminds me of the zebras and wildebeest who graze together because it is beneficial to both species. They do not poach each others food as their mouth parts are quite different. I am sure farmers still have a lot to learn from nature,James, just as we gardeners have.

Gardeners' World Web User 06/02/2011 at 10:44

Also hill pastures (being hilly) drain better. ???????? Sorry this is a silly statement!!! the rest of your blog is good. but have obviously not been on the boggy moorland with its combination of peat haggs and seasonal springs keeping the land spongy or tried to make hay in the penines,let alone garden it. however its good to give our sheep & Cattle some recognition !!! they & their management over centuries have formed much of our english landscape.

Gardeners' World Web User 06/02/2011 at 19:50

Thank you James, A timely reminder of the part those little baa lambs play in helping to build meadows rich in wild flowers. I have just the project in the pipeline ....are you psychic?

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