Do Soay sheep really prefer weeds to grass? Photographic evidence

Ever since we got our first Soay sheep nearly seven years ago, we have bragged to our friends, and frequently boasted online as well, about how great they are for cleaning up neglected pastures and keeping grass pastures healthy.  Everything we learned online in the early days reinforced our notion that our sheep were in fact cleaning up our pastures.  Here’s what one of our mentors, Kate Montgomery, had to say on the subject in her primary essay about the benefits of keeping Soay sheep:

“They manage on more meager pastures, and actually improve pastures by consuming Scotch broom, berry vines, and …”  Citation.

Our friends ordinarily indulge us when we yatter on about our sheep keeping our pastures nice, and only rarely roll their eyes, at least in our presence.  But one thing almost always brings a look of skepticism, our pronouncements about our flock’s preference for noxious blackberries over irrigated pasture mix (“really nice green grass” in lay terms).  Most people simply cannot fathom that a sheep would first go after a nasty blackberry vine’s leaves and only then turn to the really nice green grass.  Each one of these statements from our website has drawn a “Really?  You must be kidding” response:

“They much prefer weeds (“forbs”) over grasses.”  Citation.

“… the non-native, invasive blackberry has met its match in Soay sheep.  [O]ur otherwise sweet-tempered flock attacks the emergent re-growth.” Citation.

“Spring is when they get not only live grass, but also their favorite delicacies, the new growth of poison oak and blackberry leaves.”  Citation.

“Your Soay gang will seek out the new weed growth as they move through the pastures, and eat it first before they turn to the grass.”  Citation. (emphasis added, as they say in the legal biz).

Up until now, my only defense to these implicit accusations of exaggeration at best — and falsehood at worst — was to simply speak more emphatically in my best lawyer’s voice as if I were standing in front of a judge in black robes.  Then, lo and behold, as I rummaged through old photographs over the weekend, I came across a single picture of 0ne little lamb in a great big expanse of summer pasture, and guess what that little guy was doing amidst the sea of grass leaves?  You guessed it — eating a solitary blackberry vine!

Don’t believe me?  Have a look.  First, an overview of the “North Cannon” part of our pasture in 2004 when we had just let the sheep, and their guardian dog TJ, into a new area of lush grass:

Saltmarsh Ranch pasture about to be eaten by hungry Soay sheep

Saltmarsh Ranch pasture about to be eaten by hungry Soay sheep

There was so much grass to eat that this sheep had a whole big section to him or herself:

Soay sheep in grass pasture

Soay sheep in grass pasture

Can’t see any blackberry vine?  Have a closer look:

Soay sheep preferentially eating blackberry leaves

Soay sheep preferentially eating blackberry leaves

Once the lamb finished off the blackberry leaves — and thus prevented the blackberry from growing — it either lay down for a good cud chew and took a nap, or moved on to all that luscious grass there for the eating.

Now, if only I could remember (more than six years later?  not likely) exactly where in North Cannon I took this picture, I could try to go back and find out whether this particular blackberry vine ever dared shows its face again.  Somehow, I doubt it.

All you Soay shepherds out there — next time someone doubts your flock’s preference for weeds over grass, send them a link to this post, okay?  Meanwhile, spring and new grass are just around the corner, thank goodness.

For now …