As you know, we're experimenting with incorporating livestock of several kinds into the nut crop practices. The goal being to find pathways that make economic sense, and to sort out at what scale which practices might make sense.
Livestock require attention; 365 days a year; unless you are just buying feeder stock, selling them on, and not over wintering anything. In our case, we're still learning what makes sense, and therefore we do winter chickens, guineas, the sheep, and of course the horses.
About a month ago we suddenly hit an urgent need to increase the protection of our sheep from the local coyotes. In fact the first livestock we acquired were dogs- specifically trained and intended to be livestock guard animals. We have two, who are well trained (now), roam free on the farm 24 hours a day, and who have been doing a fine job of keeping predators at a distance, from both sheep and poultry.
There have been coyotes here from the outset; and while the dogs have been successful so far- coyotes are very intelligent; and very adaptable.
Last month the local coyotes jumped up their pressure. Three times, we caught them in the process of intentionally teasing and distracting the guard dogs- and pulling them away from the sheep. Fortunately for us, we were kind of expecting this to happen some day, and we were able to break up the tactic. Once the dogs were aware, they effectively chased the pack off.
In the long run, however, this is a war the coyotes are sure to win, eventually. Additional safety measures were called for. Out of the various options possible (enclosing the sheep, acquiring a Great Pyrenees type guard dog, llamas...) we opted for this:
Meet Anastasia; our new guard mule. She's a "pony-mule", barely larger than a small donkey; those are some of the Icelandic sheep in the background. She's 3 years old, and only halter broke, but shows a basic friendliness and willingness to put up with nonsense that gives us hope we can also train her to do light draft chores around the farm; perhaps helping haul nuts out of the fields during harvest, for example.
Finding, transporting, and acclimating her to her new world, however- took most of a week for 2 people. Time that was not in our original time budgets; but which the coyote/sheep/research equation suddenly required.
Incidentally- we're currently very optimistic about using the sheep in the hazels- as a "pre-coppice" treatment. They unquestionably remove a great deal of small hazel shoot material, which has low biomass value, but great nuisance potential.
This is the current sheep paddock, which includes about 150' of rows G and H; both in serious need of coppice renovation. As you can see here, weeds have been removed and the way cleared for easy access to the hazel crowns. Less obvious in the picture, since we don't have the "before" image easily available, is that the crowns have been dramatically thinned, and unexpectedly, wood damaged by Eastern Filbert Blight has mostly been broken out and removed. Those stems have decreased fuel value in any event, and are also troublesome during coppice, as they break erratically and escape standard bundling. Now- they're gone.
We'll be tracking the effects of the sheep on soil fertility and pH. Keep in mind that though keeping sheep (and mules) is usually thought of as a practice for the small farmer, we're investigating their potential for larger commercial scale use also. Income is income- and it's possible that even at large scales, integrating animals may make straight economic sense.
There is plenty more to learn here; but at the moment, it's encouraging. It's even quite possible that the extra time required by managing the sheep will be quickly repaid by decreased time and energy required to perform the coppice.