Shepherding in a new management method

Project Mow sheep eating woody invasive plants in the hedgerow of Johnson Preserve - Photo by Adela Pinch

Project Mow sheep eating woody invasive plants in the hedgerow of Johnson Preserve – Photo by Adela Pinch

Legacy has been working for many years to remove woody invasive species from the forested areas of Lloyd & Mabel Johnson Preserve. Recently, we have been focusing primarily on the hedgerows near the restored prairie. These forested strips contain invasive plants such as common buckthorn and honeysuckle that threaten to expand into the prairie.

In the constant battle to control their spread, we are always looking for new and innovative management methods. Typically, our volunteers help cut the buckthorn and honeysuckle down and then Legacy staff apply herbicide to the stump. But this year our stewardship team is testing out a new herbicide-free method–sheep!

In March and April, two groups of Eastern Michigan University (EMU) students helped cut down the invasive shrubs into a more snackable size for our four-legged crew members.  And instead of Legacy staff applying herbicide, in early September we enlisted a herd of sheep via Project Mow to eat the buckthorn and honeysuckle sprouts. For one week the sheep were fenced in around the hedgerow and supervised by volunteers as they nibbled on the invasive understory plants. 

Nine dedicated volunteer shepherds showed up for our kick-off event on September 10th. Those who came were rewarded with a two-hour workshop on sheep care and learned the basics of how to maintain Project Mow’s herd of Katahdin Sheep. Volunteers signed up for daily shifts to visit the sheep where they were responsible for refilling water, checking for behavioral issues, and monitoring the level of food available. Most importantly, our volunteers also performed the daily sheep count to ensure everyone was present and accounted for. This may be the only time that counting sheep was not recommended to help put you to sleep!

After our first week of hosting sheep on the Preserve, it is safe to say that this treatment method was a smashing success! During their time in the hedgerow, the sheep defoliated (ate all of the leaves off) all of the honeysuckle, buckthorn, and autumn olive that was within reach.  As the week progressed and the amount of available food at ground level was scarcer, volunteers had to augment the available food by cutting back branches of large shrubs for the sheep to munch on. Check out these before and after photos!

Although some additional treatment may be necessary to fully eradicate the invasive plants that the sheep ate for us, it’s likely that we’ll bring back the sheep to the same area next year for a second helping and to finish off this year’s leftovers. It was a pleasure working with Project Mow and their sheep. We are looking forward to next year!

A special thank you to all the volunteers who kept a watchful eye on the sheep, and to those who helped turn the shrubs into snackable sizes for the sheep–Johnson Preserve Steward Chuck Sawicki, EMU Sierra Club, and Dr. Maria Goodrich’s biology class!