“We are tree-herds, we old Ents. Few enough of us are left now. Sheep get like shepherd, and shepherds like sheep, it is said; but slowly, and neither have long in the world. It is quicker and closer with trees and Ents, and they walk down the ages together.” J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
When I first started farming I planted trees for my own sake, for the aesthetic of copses to break up the grassland expanses, and for the pleasure of hearing wind in the boughs. Then, as I learned more about how ecosystems work, and the pivotal role of diversity in creating resilience, I planted trees for the sake of the land.
Once I began shepherding, and learned about the pivotal role of forage diversity in sheep nutrition, I planted trees for the sake of the sheep, to give them the equivalent of ice cream to browse along with a main course of grass and forbs (broad-leaf plants).
Now that I’ve been shepherding for several years, and have learned more about how sheep age when allowed to live out their natural span, I’ve discovered that here in Australia the geriatric disease most likely to cut short an ovine life is skin cancer.
We have only a thin layer of ozone over our part of the planet. Our “ozone hole” is recovering slowly from the ravages of chemical propellants—halogen gases—unleashed into the atmosphere in far more populated areas of the world and brought here by atmospheric circulation. Although these propellants are now banned by international treaty, the chemicals are slow to break down in the atmosphere.
The extreme cold of the Antarctic continent creates the right conditions for halogen propellant gases to destroy naturally occurring ozone in the stratosphere, resulting in a hole in the ozone layer in Southern Hemisphere spring—just about now. Humans here have a much higher rate of skin cancer, too.
The trees I planted in the past, unfortunately, don’t do much to provide shade for sheep. They’re great for their intended purposes, but until I began shepherding, and then worrying about mid-day sun, I didn’t realise where I needed to plant trees: where the sheep want to be at mid-day rest. They want to be on the top of a hill or saddle, where there is a good view of any approaching threat, and where there is likely to be a breeze to help keep the flies at bay and cool them in their woolly coats.
Planting trees at the top of a hill is about the most unforgiving place for silviculture: the soil moisture is generally at a minimum just from hydraulic causes, and the wind so loved by the sheep further dries the soil. No wonder I settled years ago on planting trees in soaks where the natural drainage keeps the soil moist well into summer, if not year-round.
Now, though, I’m planting trees for the sake of the shade they provide, in the places sheep will go when the ultraviolet rays are streaming down and the UV index is extreme. Two years ago I was lucky to be part of a government project, planting nearly 2000 trees and shrubs around the farm. About 500 of them are in an area that sheep will go to for mid-day rest, and they are doing beautifully, with a nearly 100% success rate. They are 5 to 10 feet high now, and in another couple of years I will be able to take down the fence that protects them and let the sheep nap and browse there at their pleasure.
This winter, with help from the trio of tree-planting enthusiasts who got the earlier government grant I set out to plant another 1600 or so trees with my own funds. We recycled the posts and guards from the previous plantings (there were 8 areas all up, but not all in the right locations for shading sheep) and planted 1600 more in the Racecourse Grazing Area.
I spent last weekend watering them with my beautiful new firefighting unit driving along the rows, slowly, watering from the driver’s side window. It worked surprisingly well. Give it 5 years, and this area will become a favourite shady spot for mid-day rest in summer. I might go spend time there myself, just for the pleasure of sitting in the shade, listening to the wind in the boughs and watching the sheep browse the equivalent of ice cream.