Update on pasture food preferences of Soay sheep

Much has been written about the grasses and other edibles Soay sheep lived on during their thousands of years on the tiny islands of the St. Kilda archipelago and how that compares to their relatively posh existence these days on the grass pastures here in North America. There also are plenty of articles about what kind of hay or other winter food works best for those selfsame lucky Soay sheep. For my part, I have tried to give solace to fellow Soay shepherds faced with feeding their flock on neglected or overgrazed pastures by pointing out the preference our flock shows for various types of weeds and other forage plants, even in the presence of perfectly respectable grass pastures.

Each time I have written about our flock’s preference for things like poison oak, tender little spring shoots of star thistle, and especially the notoriously noxious Himalayan blackberry vines, skeptics come out of the woodwork. Generally these are folks who, like us, have spent a lot of time seeding their pastures with fresh new orchard grass seed and/or carefully using the techniques of pasture rotation and just can’t believe the sheep would rather eat blackberry leaves. I get it; there are few things more satisfying to the shepherd’s eye than a lush green pasture of consistently long soft grasses waving in the spring breezes, just waiting for the hungry Soay to dive in.

But we must accept the fact that while our labors are appreciated, including the annual effort to beat back the blackberries on the riparian side of the pasture fences, in the final analysis the sheep, if they had their druthers, would ignore the grass and head straight for the blackberries.

Don’t believe me? Have a look … again. I took this picture a couple of weeks ago in one of our nicely maintained green grass pastures. No sooner did Burbage spot the blackberry vines dangling rudely over the fence than he was up there trying to capture the Soay equivalent of a tender spring morel mushroom, or a Tuscan truffle or a bit of fois gras spread on toast points. Sigh.

So if you are one of the skeptics, fret not. Even if your Soay sheep try to eradicate all the blackberries in your pastures, they almost certainly will miss just enough allow a few vines to flower and set fruit, especially the vines that have escaped under the pasture fence to where the sheep can’t get at them. You don’t have to give up the late-summer treat of a piece of warm blackberry pie made with your own berries and topped with a dollop of full-fat vanilla ice cream, in order to have nice-looking pastures.

For now …

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