Micro Transhumance

Every Spring, once the last frosts are gone, the sheep move into back pastures. The trip takes less than ten minutes, from the barn to the back field is only about 1,500 feet. However, with limited pasture year round, this micro-management of grazing space, on already marginal sloped terrain, with a rehabilitating temperate rain forest all around, poses some unique ranging systems.

Limitations are as malleable as the seasons, with lush grass in warmer wet months, drying out into yellow crusts of little nutritional value in a drought year, to muddy swamps during wet months. Each biorhythm of the earth signals change; ever adapting, ever reinventing- the dance we are all in, together. For the sheep, an introduced species on the landscape, management is crucial.

Naturally, elk and deer would fill this ecological niche within an intact ecosystem. Due to human development, these natural balances have been disrupted. At EEC Forest Stewardship, the long term plan is to allow old growth trees to return. But in the mean time, for this first generation of restoration, livestock have come to mimic the active herds of elk and deer which once roamed this forested place. Open pastures are slowly being grown in, but the canopy will not close out here for hundreds of years. Humans have also established in this habitat, impacting the landscape with their needs and wants, not always for the improvement of the environment as a whole.

Livestock can decimate landscapes- and the history of human activity is evident all around. In the aerial photo above, you can see parcel 29221, EEC property, and surrounding neighbors. The long green scar to the right is an electric power line. Ironically, the electric lines create a buffer of green on either side, as most people don’t like living near, or within site of big high-lines. Imagine that! In the photo, you can make out a road, which is also a highway for wildlife. If we could assess it, I would love to walk my sheep there, but private property hindrances abound. This is why large migrations of animals across the landscape is now impossible. But at EEC, we’re still using the principal of movement.

If proper rotation on and off grasslands are followed, you can keep a good number of animals on areas of marginal land. Pressuring stock on pasture till they eat all the plants is a delicate dance, in which too much tango on one pasture could destroy sensitive species. This neglect compacts soil, setting back our restoration intentions by decades. Climate also determines what a pasture can take- if it’s too dry, the plants will not come back quickly, meaning more rest time, and less available grazing. But if you follow the environmental ques, you’ll know when to keep stock off the land, and when to move them on.

Right now the land is in a bonanza of new growth, and the sheep are barely keeping up with it. In moments like this, I wish I had triple the flock size. But I’m really glad I don’t- or this landscape would eventually become decimated. Spring growth is peak abundance on the land. All that winter energy has stored up into an eager new sprout and leaf, ready to face the sun in all her radiance. Sheep love this fresh, new growth, and the young lambs take in that new growth to power their own expansion into fine animals for eating. It’s the magic of grass into meat which has always inspired me in this work. What a great trade in energy, with fertility as a byproduct, when operated in manageable amounts for the location.

Many people have pointed out to me that I could run more animals on my land. Yes, many things are possible, but are they ultimately for the best? This is the question all consumer agencies should keep asking themselves as the implement smart design to temper industry back to the finite resources of reality. More animals means more inputs, like winter hay- and summer hay if there is drought. The poo piles up in winter, when the sheep spend a lot of time inside to avoid wet, cold weather. Our current barn setup is not conducive to manure pileup, and shoveling by hand limits the amount of mucking one can do in a day. Now we’re talking about a tractor input to keep up, and we’ve just jumped into a whole new category of consumption, which is a far cry from the holistic, small scale vision of EEC.

Quality over quantity is very wise advice. Quality of life is my motto- from farmer to chicken, clover to sparrow, we’re all woven in together. These lives ebb and flow together in marvelous harmony. It’s how to know if your stewardship is intuitive with place. The ground shows its wear- and knowing when to move on, taking up the flock and browsing along into a new field, it is this flow I relish as a herder. Watching the sheep take in a new landscape also tells me a lot about the quality if the pasture. If they move quickly around the space, they are unimpressed by the offerings, which means I need to reseed the ground, add diversity, mulch in some new species of under-story, or maybe look at water flow, and redirect some moisture to the space.

In small paddock systems of only a few acres, the movements are regular and often. The rewards will show up in the first year of this style of management. In time, we’re brought our numbers up too, but slowly, as the land recovers, and maintains the abundance. In 2014 we had a flock of eight sheep. Now, in 2020, we’re raising 24 animals right now, with plans of overwintering 13. In the coming months, I’m starting to work on a deal with a nearby neighbor to lease some of her acreage for more pasture space. It would be a great expansion of my business, but also a step beyond the space I currently steward, which means a lot more time away from EEC.

Another part of adapting is the chance to partner up with like-minded herders. A few years ago I had the chance to see a real transhumance occur in Provence, France. Hundreds of sheep were paraded through a small town in celebration of the return to spring pastures in the mountains. Many flocks came together for this move, and the herders helped one another to drive all the stock at once. This makes the move safer, as all the town stops to watch, and over the years, a celebration became part of the journey. Now the event garners international attention, as it is one of the last surviving transhumances in Western Europe. This migration has survived because the herders banded together with one voice, and supported each other in keeping their right of ways to mountain pasture alive.

In working with neighboring herders, I may not be opening up literal migration routs for the sheep, but I am weaving the landscape together for a shared cause. It unites land owners in rotational grazing systems that betters more land at once, providing more fertility and long term viability to more agricultural land in the area. Since King County in Western Washington is also one of the fastest growing, it is important to establish restoration farmland where we can to provide long term stability to the fragile ecology, also ensuring its return to the area.

These small management styles, which keep in tune with the overall improvement of the landscape for wild and domestic pursuits, moves human productivity back to stewardship, rather than dominion over all things. This is the vision EEC Forest Stewardship strives for, and we’ll continue to feature small scale agricultural restoration methods that have worked with great success. It’s taken a while to dial in capacity, as well as selecting the best animals to fill each role as it evolves on the land, but the results, so far, look very good. We’ll continue the great experiment in holistic land stewardship, and look forward to sharing more of what works and what does not- here at EEC.

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