Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
There are two well-known methods for reclaiming overgrown heirloom apple or other fruit trees: pruning, and opening up overgrown areas around ancient trees. Done simultaneously, these wise efforts can be too much for old trees. But there is another path to consider in tandem when seeking to reclaim such valuable but neglected assets: sheep!
(Photo by Jacqueline Klar)
Goats should not be trusted around old trees, unless each tree is to be individually fenced and protected. They will devour vital bark, and climb into (and break) limbs where they are able. Cows and horses also can cause permanent or fatal damage. But sheep of most all breeds are by far the most innocuous, and the old fruit trees will express a thriving appreciation for the company.
Here in Vermont, we fenced a modest flock of our Corriedale sheep into an old apple orchard, and the trees exploded with blossoms and fruit. Year after year they improved, and we did very little pruning. Sheep urine replenishes nitrogen without soil toxicity, and fecal deposits tend to be well-distributed (v. cow-plops!) to nurture soils without killing grass. On warm days the sheep seek shade, so much of the urea and manure is concentrated over the roots. The sheep will not trouble bark, though they do nibble at low-hanging fruit and branches, and they conveniently keep suckers off roots. Sheep are pleased to convert dropped fruit into quickly-composting organic fertilizer, tax-free.
Overgrazing is always a consideration, but rotating sheep into apple orchards is a win-win method to boost both lamb and fruit crops. Be cautious though: rotating lambs or sheep into an orchard in fruit season could permit them to gorge themselves, and they should be monitored or rotated to prevent bloat. However, if they are left in through the season, our experience has been that they will not dangerously overeat.
And for the farmer who is not equipped, or does not desire, to house animals through winter months, spring lambs will work the land advantageously before “retiring” to winter freezer storage.
(A caution: we lost six young lambs, who had sheltered under a prominent old apple tree, in a single lightning blast. If possible, shelter animals from strong weather conditions, and turn off the electric fence before a big storm so as not to draw lightning.)
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