We've had 3 ½ inches of rain in May (hooray!) and the property is looking better than it has in months. Admittedly, it looks better from a distance than at worm's-eye level, where there is too much bare ground showing. However, the lovely spring green look is most welcome, along with the beginnings of run-off.
In other news, two new sock yarns are now in stock: Ashmore and Silver Tussock, along with a new product: colour packs of 3 mini-skeins, with your choice of colour and ply. A couple of reminders, too: if you click on the still photos, you'll get the higher resolution shots in actual size. Also, all past Yarns and editions of Come Shepherding are posted on the website. Now, back to the Yarn...
For many years I’ve been perplexed by the agricultural emphasis on genetics. In Australian parlance, the industry is incredibly “one-eyed” on the subject. Yet, the rule of thumb any geneticist will admit to is that variations in any characteristic you want to pick will be attributable roughly 30/70 to genetics and to environment. So why the over-emphasis on genetics? I think I may have finally figured it out. Genetics is about sex. Environment is about nurturing.
From a masculine perspective, sex is easier than nurturing. Besides, the females in the picture (Mother Nature, mama animal) will do the nurturing, right? Which might be true if we didn’t mess with Mother Nature (and mama animal, for that matter), but we have messed with them and we continue to do so, making the nurturing job a lot harder than it was before humans entered the picture.
We even call what we do with livestock “animal husbandry”, with a semantic implication the job is done once the sex is over. It seems to me we need a new field of endeavour here, with a name to define it. This is only partially tongue-in-cheek: the nurturing of livestock and the landscape they depend on requires not only different skills, it requires a different emotional “mindset” from a genetics-centric approach.
And just to add a soupçon of complexity to the discussion, it turns out there is no firewall between genetics and environment: genes can be altered in a single lifetime of an individual, responding to its local environmental conditions, even in the womb. Evolution didn’t just happen in the past and we are now dealing with it; evolution is happening all the time, as living things strive to meet the survival challenges they face. This intersection of genetics and environment has the name “epigentics”. See, genetics won this semantics battle, too.
But back to animal wifery. By emotional mindset, I mean a softness, a deep caring for the well-being of all the living things in the picture, a willingness to embrace complexity and to work with the natural flow of life, rather than attempting to dominate it. Quintessential feminine characteristics.
This is not meant to be a gender distinction: all of us are capable of showing both masculine and feminine characteristics. (I know I suffered a surfeit of masculine tendencies in my previous career in physics, for example.) The important things are, as always, balance and emotional health. Perhaps as much as anything I’d like this discussion to be about encouraging all of us in agriculture, men and women, to tap into our innate ability to nurture.
At the centre of nurturing, for me, is nutrition: the dance between plants and grazing animals. I’d like to spend the rest of this Yarn exploring the behaviours of plants and animals that together result in nutrition. I’ve talked about these ideas in other contexts, but they are so pivotal it’s worth dusting them off and using them to illustrate the way I’m trying to manage my flock now.
Shepherding is the single most important thing I do on the farm. Whoa. Did I just say that? Well, it’s true. It’s true because without shepherding the sheep will not have access to the full range of plant diversity on the property, which they need in order to be as healthy as they can possibly be. Their health is reflected in the amount and quality of the wool they grow, their fertility, their parenting abilities, and their overall well-being.
And shepherding has become vital to my well-being, too. Not just the exercise, which is great, but the ongoing connection to my natural world, which I need to have refreshed often. Spending quality time with my sheep every other day or so also helps mitigate my frequent self-doubt: managing in such a different way from conventional farming and knowing that my complex system is continuously changing means I'm seldom completely sure I'm doing the "right" thing from day to day. Healthy sheep, enjoying their forage and their social structure, reaffirm for me the rightness of the underlying principles, even when I'm not confident about the details of how I do it. And just being in the landscape, feeling accepted by the earth and the animals on it, is an amazing gift.
This video of Elf coming to say hello was taken a few days ago. He and the other pets are now nearly 3 years old. That's Clara right behind him.
Why do I keep harping on plant diversity? The term “biodiversity” gets bandied about fairly indiscriminately, and has lost much of its punch in overuse. However, biodiversity is at the crux of good nutrition as well as good landscape function.
All plants have evolved (and continue to evolve!) defences against grazing whether it be by microbes or elephants. The defences are comprised of a complex of what are called “secondary” compounds, to distinguish them from primary nutrients like protein and carbohydrates. Secondary compounds are things like tannins, alkaloids, terpenoids and other sophisticated chemicals.
When an animal ingests too much tannin, for instance, a mild nausea results some hours later. Through one of the most amazing of autonomic responses, animals are able to connect the feeling of nausea with the taste (really the smell) of the plant that caused the effect, hours before. The next time they encounter the offending plant, they will cautiously eat less of it, until over time they learn what their individual systems can tolerate.
And here are some of the consequences:
- the animal will move to eat another plant once it has reached tolerance on a given secondary compound, reducing the grazing pressure on the first plant
- by moving to other plants, the animal is consuming a wide range of secondary compounds, all of which have beneficial effects. Secondary compounds are nature’s pharmaceuticals, and the basis for all “modern” pharmacology
- taste, or more accurately smell, is the way animals stay healthy. The incredible ability of animals (including us humans) to detect tiny amounts of secondary compounds, and to distinguish them from each other, protects us from toxic levels of consumption, as well as providing us with a balanced diet.
- without plant diversity, animals have no way to avoid overeating some secondary compounds, and no way to take advantage of the pharmaceutical benefits of others.
- animals grazing in a diverse environment have the ability to make individual choices among the many things on the menu, catering to their own specific requirements, which vary over time.
- mama animals who know how to eat well in their environment teach their babies, making the learning process more efficient with each passing generation.
This video was taken as I led the sheep through a particularly dense area in the Highway Reserve a couple of weeks ago. Not only did they find their way through, following me, they were busily grazing along the way.
My property, like most farms, has areas of low plant diversity and areas of higher diversity. Shepherding lets me give the sheep the full benefit of the available diversity. And, I need to add, abundance is needed in order to maintain plant diversity, because the grazers in the system will eat the diversity first. There needs to be more than enough forage for all of the things that eat it--grubs, insects, wildlife and sheep--or over time the diversity will disappear and be replaced by plants most resistant to overgrazing. So grazing pressure is critical. In the next Yarn, I'll talk about different grazing strategies and their strengths and weaknesses.
A wedge-tailed eagle flew in to check out me, the dogs and the sheep the other morning...