The Missing Piece
Adding grazing animals to habitat management.
Removing invasive plants, adding native species, conducting prescribed burns . . . SWMLC staff and volunteers have worked hard to bring savanna and grassland habitat back to Chipman and other preserves, but one key ingredient was still missing: grazing animals.
I watched the sheep bound from the back of the trailer and just keep going. They hustled to the end of the field, far away from the humans, leaving one very hungry ewe to tear at the grass, tiny twin lambs by her side. Soon, the curious flock began exploring their new home, sampling the grass, sniffing the air, and testing the temporary electric fence (yep – stings a little!). I saw happy relief when I glanced at Lauren and Jeff’s faces: their animals were now safely delivered to SWMLC’s Chipman Preserve.
“Counting sheep”, Jeff Buckham releases the wooly workers.
Lauren Burns and her business partner, Jeff Buckham, own a Kalamazoo-based contract-grazing company called Tending Tilth that provides sheep as an earth-friendly alternative to mowing, and a potentially powerful tool for habitat restoration. They started four years ago after Lauren and her husband moved back from Chicago, where she had been working with ‘hoofstock’’ (including giraffes!) as a zookeeper at Lincoln Park Zoo. After talking with folks at the farmers’ market about sustainable farming, Lauren got the idea to combine her animal expertise with this low-impact service that gives back to the earth. She gained practical experience by working for local farmers, then connected with Jeff through the Michigan Sheep Producers Association. Jeff is a five-generation sheep farmer and has been handling sheep since he was a kid, and his family’s flocks have provided scenic charm to Kalamazoo’s west side for years. Lauren and Jeff’s combined talents have created a unique business that checks many good ecological boxes.
Mitch Lettow, SWMLC Stewardship Director and Dave Brown, SWMLC Stewardship Specialist, have been researching the use of grazing animals as a habitat management tool at Chipman Preserve for quite some time. Located on high ground in eastern Kalamazoo County, much of Chipman used to be savanna, a now-rare habitat that is characterized by open grassland, wildflowers, scattered groves of oak trees – and grazing animals. Across North America, most savannas and prairies have been lost to farming and housing developments, but SWMLC has been working hard to bring these habitats back to Chipman and other preserves. Staff and volunteers have worked hundreds of hours removing invasive plants, adding native species, and conducting prescribed burns to keep pushy shrubs out. They feel it’s making a difference for pollinators and grassland birds . . . but Mitch and Dave realized that a key ingredient was still missing: grazing animals.
This map shows the habitat types of Kalamazoo County when it was surveyed by the federal government sometime between 1816 and 1856. The approximate location of Chipman Preserve is marked with a red star and shows that mixed oak savanna (cream) and grassland (yellow) habitats were in that area at the time. Tap the map to see a larger PDF that includes a key to the colors. Courtesy of Michigan Natural Features Inventory. Find maps of other Michigan Counties by tapping here.
It only makes sense . . . herds of bison once roamed wherever the grasslands took them, including southwest Michigan’s savannas and prairies. Bison encouraged plant growth with their grazing and manure, and their hooves broke up the soil, helping rain to reach roots. Along with fire, bison and other large herbivores were essential in keeping open habitats free of shrubs. They trampled random trails through the tall grass that were used by other animals, especially grassland birds that need both cover and places to nest. Of course, there’s no way we could bring a herd of bison to Chipman Preserve . . . but Dave remembered hearing that Tending Tilth was doing the next best thing with sheep.
Mitch and Dave have two main goals in grazing sheep at Chipman. One is to give the plants a more uneven, random structure – something that’s difficult for us order-loving humans to achieve. Sheep like to eat their favorite “ice cream” plants first, grazing in an uneven way that creates tufts and avenues at ground level that offer essential cover and hiding places for ground-nesting grassland birds.
The other goal is to reduce the “cool season” pasture grasses that were introduced by Euro-American homesteaders as feed for animals like horses, cows, and sheep. These fast-growing non-native grasses mature in early summer, crowding out the indigenous grasses that mature in the fall. The hope is that early season grazing will hamper these grasses enough to give the native plants a good headstart.
Jeff Buckham sets up the temporary electric fence made of flexible white netting.
A few days before the sheep arrived, Dave mowed the grass short around a five-acre portion of the grassland, then divided it into three units. This mowed area was where Lauren and Jeff set up the temporary electric fence, flexible white netting attached to posts that can be pushed into the ground with foot pressure. The netting is electrified when connected to a solar-powered charger – and Jeff said it delivers quite a jolt. They created a “moat” by setting up an inner ring of fencing to keep the sheep in, and an outer ring to keep people, dogs, and coyotes out – then hung warning signs on the fence. Dave closed nearby trails and installed even bigger warning signs; though we knew people would be curious, we wanted to keep things peaceful and safe for the sheep.
The Tending Tilth Team created a “moat” by setting up an inner ring of fencing to keep the sheep in, and an outer ring to keep people, dogs, and coyotes out – then hung warning signs on the fence.
Lauren and Jeff brought 40 ewes (female sheep), big girls with freshly shorn light gray wool. Lauren also has another flock of smaller “hair sheep” – pretty animals with wool that sheds naturally rather than getting sheared, but many of them had just given birth (30 new lambs!) and she didn’t want to risk the little ones’ safety by bringing them to SWMLC while so young. However, the twin lambs that were with the flock working at Chipman Preserve were a nice, unexpected surprise.
The twin lambs that were out with the flock working at Chipman Preserve were a nice, unexpected surprise!
Lauren and Jeff left the animals a large tank of water and a container of supplementary mineral salt. Within about a week’s time, the sheep had grazed most of the green grass in the 3-acre unit down to a buzz cut, and it was time to move them to the next unit. Lauren and Jeff enclosed the new area with more flexible, electric fence, then opened a hole between the two units. Then the Tending Tilth team walked the pasture, not shouting or waving their arms, but simply pressuring the sheep with their “predatory” human presence, patiently moving the animals until they were safely relocated.
I visited the peaceful scene on a warm evening a few days later. Happy tree swallows sailed around catching bugs the sheep had stirred up and the low sun lit halos around the wooly grazers, making their ears glow. The ewes were silent and calm, some watching us, others enjoying the luxury of grazing, a few getting settled for the night. The twin lambs looked healthy and clean as they stuck close to their mama.
It may be a while before we’re able to see the extent of the sheep’s impact on the habitat but, for now, it all seemed so right, so correct to have grazers back on the scene. I felt thankful that people were doing their best to give back to the earth in this way.
Learn more about what SWMLC is doing to improve grassland bird habitat by reading these stories:
Endless Summer Soundtracks
Protecting Nature, Vol. 29, No. 2
Scroll to page 7
Sanctioned by Sparrows
Protecting Nature, Vol. 28, No. 2
Scroll to page 5