For a while now Adrian and I have been thinking about silvopasture. This is a pasture system where livestock are given controlled access to trees so they can enjoy the benefits of woodland grazing.
Silvopasture has loads of benefits, not only to livestock but also on a grander scale to the planet. The more trees which are introduced to pasture systems the more diverse flora and fauna there is and the less “green deserts” there are (sterile fields). And let’s not forget the biggie; trees are a great way to contribute towards carbon sequestration.
But coming back to livestock and in particular to sheep, as you might have read in previous stories of ours sheep love trees, they use them as scratch posts and enjoy the shelter they provide, but they particularly enjoy eating them! So, when thinking about silvopasture, the fact that livestock are rather partial to tree bark and low growing branches means any woodland grazing needs to be carefully thought about.
Done properly, livestock is given controlled access to woodland grazing, usually in strips, which minimises the risk of tree damage and overgrazing. Not allowing permanent access to woodland allows the all important flora to regenerate and continue providing delicious forage for our livestock friends year upon year.
With this in mind, we thought long and hard about how to create an area of silvopasture for our little flock. All the woodland we have around our fields is young and so not ideal. It is also surrounded by a deer fence and if we gave the sheep access we might accidentally trap a deer within the woodland which would be a problem for both the deer and the young trees.
Then Adrian had a brainwave, we have a copse ideally situated in one of the sheep’s favourite fields. The trees are mature and would provide plenty of shade. It wouldn’t be great grazing, but as an alternative field shelter it would be just the ticket!
Currently fenced off, the copse comprises mostly conifers (we would have preferred more of a variety of trees and are already planning interplanting some deciduous trees in amongst the evergreens). But the location of the copse is good so we’re going to work with it.
Now that our main focus would be to give the sheep somewhere shady to go on hot days we would be able to close off the field shelter which is a magnet for flies. Building the shelter seemed like a good idea at the time but looking back we probably wouldn’t have built it now. There is little airflow and although it provides shade and we keep it mucked out, flies are a big problem.
The great thing about silvopasture is that the trees provide shade, but because there is good air flow, there are a lot less flies hanging around than there would be in a field shelter.
As I’ve mentioned in previous stories, flies, especially the Blowfly are bad news for sheep. Flies in general are annoying but the Blowfly can kill. Flies are always a concern for us during the summer but it’s a tricky one because sheep don’t fare well in hot weather and actively seek out shady areas to sit in and chew the cud. But if the air flow isn’t good then flies will be a problem which can be just as stressful, if not more so, than the hot sun.
When we made the decision to shut off access to the field shelter last month the sheep were not impressed at all. Despite it being less than ideal, they still love it and go there every day in the hope that they might be allowed in. It’s hard to see them missing their favourite haunt, but we know the new shady area will be a much better environment for them. We did explain this when we shut them out but they weren’t convinced. Sheep are creatures of habit and trundling off to sit in the old field shelter is still firmly part of their daily routine.
Just over two weeks ago we began work on the copse. First of all, Adrian created access to it by way of a wooden gate. This meant banging in a gatepost so we could fix the gate to it.
This done, we got our secateurs, loppers and pick axe and began work on the brambles. The copse was absolutely choked with them, they completely carpeted the ground and were halfway up the trees. We really had our work cut out.
We filled 12 big dumpy bags full of bramble branches and roots, we worked for two hours a day and gathered many splinters, so many we lost count.
But at long last, yesterday evening we pulled out our last bramble and were able to sit back and admire our work with a much deserved cup of tea and slice of flapjack. It was a very satisfying moment!
We will let the dust settle for two weeks and then let the sheep in. They’ll only be allowed in on hot days. We’re hoping that by only giving them occasional access during the summer when there’s plenty of grass about, they won’t be tempted to nibble bark and low growing branches.
There will be another story coming soon about how the sheep react when we let them into their “silvoshelter”, we can’t wait to see their faces when we open the gate for them and let them in to investigate!