After I left the Ontario family farm, my working career eventually went in the direction of providing property maintenance services and operating a small business, which eventually lead to me learning, not only about landscaping and design, but more and more about the benefits of organic growing.
Not that we used a lot of chemicals on the old farm but there were a couple of times when, as a youth, I witnessed first hand the damage caused by chemical spills on neighbouring farms. One case in particular, was a spill that ended up in the stream that ran through the middle of our farm and devastated the entire stream bed of life, all the minnows, tadpoles, etc. along with the vegetation for about a 10 foot swath on either side of the water was dead.
It wasn’t until I moved my family to British Columbia and we randomly ended up on one of the small Gulf Islands that I was exposed to sheep and poultry as livestock on a small farm. Our first sheep was an orphaned lamb from one of the older farming families on the island. The lamb was given to my eldest daughter to raise as a 4-H project. And if you’ve never had a lamb romping around in your house you’re not living!
Of course, we all fell in love with this lamb and when she became the Champion Lamb at the local fall fair that year, well, there was no turning back, for me or my children. 4-H and sheep took over our lives for many years after that. Eventually, we outgrew 4-H but the sheep had turned into a flock of purebred registered sheep, that were being produce for gene stock across the country.
It didn’t take me long to realize though, that sheep and gardens just go together… I mean it’s one of those “Win Win” situations. The best, well balanced, garden requires a good quality healthy soil in order to produce the best of plants, be it flowers or vegetables. In order to get that good soil most gardens require copious amounts of compost, aka black gold, and one of the best ingredients for a high nitrogen base in your compost/gardens is to add animal manures and sheep manure is one of the best.
Invariably though, at some point, the gardener questions where all this compost goodness is coming from and especially when it comes to adding manures to the mix. Concerns begin to arise about the potential for harmful bacteria being introduced via animal waste products, what’s the animal eating and is that being passed through to the end product, etc. All good questions, especially this day and age when who knows what is being fed without having a lab do a feed analysis first, right at the feed trough.
The list of advantages to having sheep is long but for me what tops the list, is that they are exclusively herbivores and they have 4 stomachs! Why does this matter you ask? Well, they only eat vegetation or plant material, green food as the children would say, and once that has been processed through their extensive digestive system, there is nothing left but a mild, weed seed free, brown pellet of nitrogen rich goodness coming out the other end. Perfect for the garden.
I had enough fresh but mild, (meaning not overly saturated with urine causing there to be too much ammonia) sheep manure mixed with spent hay from the barn that I would often skip the composting part and apply it directly on the garden beds, as a mulch in the fall and early spring, without experiencing any problems associated with burning or die off or fungus, etc.
Rabbit droppings are good too, but with only one stomach they will often pass along weed seeds, same with horses, cows have almost too much in concentrated amounts to offer and definitely should be composted first, also because of their bulk they naturally require a larger amount of land to keep them on and chickens are nearly liquid with a high concentration of ammonia and thus a high potential for burning.
Sheep also have a lovely fleece/wool that needs to be sheared off annually and often there is not much of a market for their fleece (although I hope that will change, as it’s an undervalued commodity in Canada). But their fleece makes a great weed suppressor in the garden when spread as a mulch on dormant garden beds or around the base of fruit trees and I have used it as substitute for moss in ‘moss’ hanging baskets. I’ve also given it away to be used as insulation in eco friendly housing. So if you don’t have a spinner or knitter in your household, there are still lots of practical uses for their wool.
And then of course, there is the perspective of self sustainability, where knowing what you are eating by raising your own meat for the table is, in my opinion, one of the most satisfying experiences you can ever have. Of course, there is no comparison between store bought and home-grown meat that is free of radicals with no hormones added and provides an ample supply despite rising costs commercially in all markets. Not only do you know how it lived, how it died and the role YOU played in all of it, that knowledge brings comfort, respect and gratitude for the role these animals play in nourishing you and your family.
I know, I know, not everyone can have a flock of sheep in the backyard. But hopefully this will inspire you to seek out your local shepherd (they are usually a quiet bunch so you might have to make inquiries far and wide to find one) and beg them for a portion of their manure supply. Even if it means you have to stock pile some in a corner somewhere. Believe me, it is well worth the effort and I have found it has a natural, earthy smell to it, in most cases.
Internationally recognized rights for animals under human control…
The Five Freedoms
1. Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour
2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
3. Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
4. Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
5. Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
— Compendium of Animal Health and Welfare in Organic Farming, Organic Livestock Research Group, The University of Reading, UK