Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Sheep Vegetation Management and Permaculture

Permaculture  Principle no. 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." - David 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 no. 5 - "Use and value renewable resources."   "The proverb, "let nature take its course", that control over nature through excessive resource use and high technology is not only expensive, but can only 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 no. 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 it's 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. 


  1. I'm trying to find information on possibly taking on sheep herding. Does Loxton still hire? Do you have any information I may be able to pursue on sheep herding?

    Thanks for your time.

    you can contact me at todd.westcott(at)gmail.com

  2. AS far as I know you can reach Dennis Loxton at 250-971-2348

  3. This guy is the f'in man!
    Met him in on the street in Prince George.. he approached me because I had a planting shovel on me and asked me about how the planting industry is going these days. We got talking about alternative vegetation management techniques such as sheep. Got to admit, thought he was bs'ing at first, but after talking to the guy for half an hour, realized this guy knows his stuff! Amazingly ideas. If only there were more out there in the forestry industry like Mr. Loxton. A true silvicultural legend!

  4. Thanks mate, I'm getting an Australian accent just thinking about Loxton, and his sheep farming silviculture. I'm going to re-edit and publish this piece on facebook.