Can goats and sheep stop wildfires? This shepherdess is rallying the flock
Bush is the founder of Shepherdess Land & Livestock, a ranch in the Ojai Valley that uses grazing animals to reduce the risk of wildfires in southern California. Ruminants have become an increasingly common sight on land primed to burn across the US west, and Bush says there’s been a growing demand for her services. She and her team have put their hundreds-strong herds to work chewing down parched plants for landowners, government agencies, housing developments and detention centers. The ancient practice is taking on new significance in an era of climate uncertainty – and there’s lots of work to go around.
Sheep and goats are naturally equipped with the tools to mitigate wildfires: they’ll eagerly chomp down dry vegetation and are adept at navigating tough terrain where machines can’t reach. Their small hooves help aerate hardened soil, while their stool offers fresh fertilizer that helps native plants flourish. But prescribed grazing requires a more surgical application. Shepherds work closely with dogs, who both protect and direct sheep and goats to the right areas, and they also must understand which plants are most palatable and when, how to time grazing with weather and seasons, and the careful mix and number of animals needed for particular parcels of land.
Done correctly, this type of grazing can positively benefit the ecology while helping communities stay safe. Armed with a culture of camaraderie and dedication to addressing both the causes and consequences of the climate crisis, Bush and her team are helping to spread the word.
Along with this boot camp, she founded the Grazing School of the West, and her company is partnering with the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department to introduce incarcerated people to the work, offering participants a path to pursue when released. “The heart and spirit connection humans have with animals and the land will always be there,” she said. “Even though we live in a technological world, we will always need to have that connection – and the jobs that keep us connected to the earth.”
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