Tuesday, April 16, 2024
HomeConsider ThisPastoral Icon or Wooly Menace? Are Sheep Destroying the Planet?

Pastoral Icon or Wooly Menace? Are Sheep Destroying the Planet?

Illustration by Anders Nilsen as it appeared in the original article.

In a recent Opinion piece in the New YorkTimes (Pastoral Icon or Wooly Menace), author Richard Conniff describes British environmentalist George Monbiot’s problem with sheep.  According to Monbiot, because of overgrazing by sheep, the deforested uplands, including a national park, looked “like the aftermath of a nuclear winter.”  Monbiot’s self-described “unhealthy obsession with sheep” has led to his instigation of an anti-sheep campaign that builds on a broader “rewilding” movement to bring native species back to Europe.  In fact, Mr. Monbiot proposes getting rid of sheep all together to be replaced by a more lucrative economy of walking and wildlife-based activities. As Conniff writes, “He [Monbiot] also argues for bringing wolves back to Britain, for reasons both scientific (“to reintroduce the complexity and trophic diversity in which our ecosystems are lacking”) and romantic (wolves are “inhabitants of the more passionate world against which we have locked our doors”). But he acknowledges that it would be foolish to force rewilding on the public. “If it happens, it should be done with the consent and active engagement of the people who live on and benefit from the land.””  

If you’re a sheep producer, you’ve probably got a few choice words for Mr. Monbiot right about now. Kimberly Hagen did too, and she shares them here:

It’s not the sheep Mr. Monbiot, it’s the people that manage them. THAT is the problem. 

Ah! What a surprise – to think that people, and our infatuation with bowling green expanses could be responsible.  This four legged creature’s historical existence is tightly woven with the human race, providing us with a portable source of food, fiber and material for the pages of writing our history, and it knows only to do what evolution and humans have managed it to do: eat, roam and procreate with the occasional baa-aaing. 

Photo by Evelyn Simak of a Texel ewe and twin lambs.
Photo by Evelyn Simak of a Texel ewe and twin lambs.

For more than just a few centuries, humans relied on this species to provide what it needed to survive.  But cultivation agriculture evolved, and the dependence on sheep faded as other foods became an integral part of the human diet.  Still, we insist on having them numerously populating our landscape, and Mr. Monbiot is right in stating that the places where they have been look “like the aftermath of a nuclear winter.”   It is indeed an ecological disaster as he declares – to the living systems and on par with industrial pollution and climate change – if you are in that camp.  The mid-east provides all the evidence needed to see what ruminants will do to a landscape when not managed with care in balance with the existing ecosystem.  

So here we are in the 21st century, no longer so completely dependent on that species for survival, yet unwilling to give up the landscape they provide us. The question we should be asking is why? What is it about that landscape that we can’t let go of?  England is not alone in this green carpet infatuation.  I have no idea what the total tally of time, labor, fuel  and chemical cost of maintaining the lawns here in the USA might be, but it would probably send everyone but the lawnmower  and chemical companies swooning if we really knew.  But why are we so attracted to that vision that we ignore all practical and economic reason (and there are many! ) against it. This is a very important question because it does need an answer and we can’t keep blaming the sheep. That deeply cherished landscape is very, very, very expensive – for everyone. 

Sheep grazing at Newington Sheep grazing. The hedgerow beyond bounds Long Lane. The land use in this grid square is mainly agricultural, and of that, most is pasture.  Photo by Andrew Bennett as part of geograph.uk
Sheep grazing at Newington in Great Britain. The hedgerow beyond bounds Long Lane. The land use in this grid square is mainly agricultural, and of that, most is pasture. Photo by Andrew Bennett as part of geograph.uk

No doubt anthropological, neurological, or psychological scientists have theories and good explanations about the human attachment to expansive clipped lawns. I leave it to them and look forward to hearing what they are. In the meantime, the timing might be just right for some adjustments – oh boy, here comes another paradigm shift!  In other words, since we are nearing a crisis point with our bowling green infatuation, both financially and environmentally, perhaps we should take this opportunity to try and embrace a different landscape – the “scruffy scrub”?  We just might get some cake ( a smaller piece) and get to eat it as well.

In the “scruffy scrub” landscape, the sheep get to stay, but not as many, and not 24/7. They are confined to a smaller section for a period of time and then moved to a new section. Clipping or mowing is not allowed.  It does leave a scruffy, rough unkempt look, although with some evidence of management, as there has been some grazing.  The rewards?  Birds and insects will populate the habitat, and other bits of wildlife as well – a “rewilding” of sorts, as Mr Monbiot so fervently wishes.  The sheep will be happier as they won’t have to work so hard for a mouthful of food, and they will be healthier since the need for chemical worming medication is dramatically reduced when grazing is taking place in the upper levels of forage, and not near the ground where the parasite larvae like to hang out. 

Sheep are still important – they are a renewable resource, and still provide meat, and wonderful fiber that is finally enjoying the renaissance it deserves. Hard to believe, but there isn’t yet a man-made fiber that can do what wool can do.  

We can solve a lot of problems if we'll just sit down to a meal together!
We can solve a lot of problems if we’ll just sit down to a meal together!

So perhaps a gathering of Mr. Monbiot, with the economist for the National Farmer’s Union Phil Bicknell, the Oxford Geographer John Boardman, Wouter Helmer of Rewilding Europe,  and Paul Lister of Ecotourism Scotland, to prepare a meal of roasted leg of lamb and potatoes, drenched in rosemary, red wine and garlic, where all would  get to eat it too, would be a place to start. The landscape needs a new coverlet, and it’s best if knitted together with all the strands. It will be much stronger and last much longer.  

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Kimberly Hagen
Kimberly Hagen
Kimberly Hagen is a Grazing Specialist at the University of Vermont Pasture Network. She also owns and operates Osprey Hill Farms where she grazes sheep, producing lamb, sheepskins, yarn and raspberries for local sale.

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