Hundreds of sheep descend upon Preserve in the foothills to help restore native grasslands
By TESS KENNY
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
Feeling sheepish about your commitment to community service? Don’t worry, it’s not quite time to be sent out to pasture. The sheep docent program is back at the San Marcos Foothills Preserve, and they’re calling on ewe.
Last week, hundreds of sheep flocked to the Preserve to restore native grasslands, where they’ll stay until February 22. To hikers passing through, this may come as a pleasant, albeit confusing, surprise. Luckily, volunteer sheep docents are standing by to explain Channel Islands Restoration’s three-year project.
“When you look at the grasslands in California, most of what you’re seeing isn’t native,” said Elihu Girvetz, CIR Senior Ecologist. “If you make grazing part of the system, you give native plants a fighting chance.”
Through grazing invasive vegetation, the sheep help rebuild habitats and bring grassland-dependent birds back to the area, including Western meadowlarks, grasshopper sparrows and burrowing owls. Not so long ago, these species were common residents of the Preserve, but recent changes have triggered their disappearance.
Years ago, elk and deer grazed the area, but were soon displaced when ranchers brought livestock to Santa Barbara. While not perfect substitutes, cattle, sheep and other non-native grazers played a similar part to their pre-historic counterparts in maintaining the grasslands.
But even these animals were temporary tenants. In 2008, livestock were taken off the Preserve, which was quickly followed by the Jesusita Fire a year later. Suddenly, all that was left was an open space waiting to be filled. Without livestock or native plants to defend their land, invasive species swiftly crowded the foothills.
Introduced to our area from other parts of the world, these species out-compete natural vegetation. This can disrupt a very delicate ecosystem built on balance. Without their native habitats, wildlife have nowhere to call home and are forced to leave.
“I really wanted to improve the habitat for birds that depend on the grassland, who are really having a hard time,” said Mr. Elihu. “Across the whole continent, their population numbers have really gone down.”
In 2010, CIR, alongside hundreds of volunteers, began restoring the Preserve. Together, they started removing invasive weeds and planting more than 4,700 new species by hand. But realizing that goal soon became a daunting task. The nonprofit quickly saw that such large-scale restoration was going to take more time and more money than what was available.
So they switched their method – to sheep.
With a new goal in mind, CIR turned to Cuyama Lamb, a company that provides sheep all along the Central Coast to regenerate California grasslands. After making their Preserve debut last year, the sheep are back and already leaving a noticeable hoofprint.
“Last year, we just did a late season impact,” said Jack Anderson, Cuyoma Lamb Co-Owner. “This is our first time doing an early season impact, which we hope can make even more of a difference.”
The idea is that there are two sensitive times for weed species to invade the foothills, the first being in late December to early January and the second running from March to mid-August. By grazing in both periods, the sheep are better able to not just clear the invaders, but also keep them away.
To graze the entire 50 acres of Preserve grassland, the herd, who munch around three-and-a-half acres each day, are rotated daily. Those sheep are enclosed by an electric fence, which also moves daily – a process that takes several hours to complete.
That said, once it’s time for the sheep to rotate, they do so without hesitation. In a matter of seconds, 200 ewes and 150 lambs dart for their next pasture in need of trampling. Herding dogs Rocco and Lucy bring up the rear, keeping an eye out for any stragglers.
For one sheep docent, this is unlike anything she had seen before.
“The whole thing is just incredible,” said Kelly Hill, watching the rotation. “Just look at them go! I can’t believe how they move so fast, like I blink my eyes and they’re already gone.”
Ms. Hill discovered the sheep docent program last year and couldn’t wait to come back. As someone who had always loved nature, the opportunity was almost too good to be true.
“Before volunteering on the Preserve, I had no clue that (this area) even existed,” said Ms. Hill. “It’s just beautiful to be on this property. This is probably the easiest volunteering you can do, just sitting here in your beach chair for a couple hours enjoying nature.”
While sheep docents are encouraged to bring a book and unwind, their responsibilities extend far past relaxation. Working in two hour shifts throughout the day, each docent looks out for off-leash dogs, so neither the pets nor the sheep take off running.
Alongside those dogs, of course, are curious hikers. While turning the corner to see hundreds of sheep may raise some questions, docents come prepared with a binder of answers.
“We learned about the whole process, like the reason the sheep only graze once a day and why they move from place to place,” said hiker Georgia Tracy. “This is just wonderful.”
Every week, Ms. Tracy goes on different hikes through her psychology class at SBCC. Usually, the group uses hiking to meditate, but this particular trail provided something new.
“This course is focused on nature and self-healing, so we do a different hike each week to connect with the world around us,” said Rodger Sparrow, SBCC Instructor. “I took (my class) to San Marcos this week, and we were all so surprised to see the sheep.”
While not what they were expecting, Mr. Sparrow and his students left the Preserve fawning over sheep and talking habitat restoration. In this way, the sheep leave an impact on the people passing by as much as the grasslands.
“There was a lot of learning because (our) docent was so knowledgeable,” said Mr. Sparrow. “It was like a little bonus for my class. This project is great for the soil, great for the sheep, great for the environment, and great for us. Just really amazing all around.”