Recently, someone sent me an email asking a question about grazing:
Is it true that when sheep graze a field, they bite down to the nub of the forage and leave nothing left of the grazed plants, and that this was part of the reason for the range wars between cattlemen and shepherds between 1870-1920: the cattle had nothing to eat once the sheep had grazed the field.
Sheep share common eating habits with most two legged children:
- If left to fend for themselves, they will only eat the food they like best and leave the rest behind
- If not given enough to eat, they will whine and complain
- If given the same plate to eat from, day after day without replenishing the food on the plate, they will surely lick and scrape whatever bits of food remnants are left from the day before.
Let’s take a closer look at these three commonalities. First, sheep enjoy a wide range of forage- grasses, various legumes, herbs,weeds, and even leaves, brambles, and bark. However, if allowed to, sheep will only eat what they consider to be the most tasty plants, leaving behind the unsavory. Secondly, sheep can become quite vocal if their pasture has little forage. They will stand at the fence line and complain. Lastly, if sheep are put in the same field day after day, forcing them to overgraze, they will eat the grass down to a nub. First, they will eat the plants they like best, carefully taking just the top portion of the plant. Then, slowly, they will work their way through the entire field, eating all the vegetation, tasty and the unpalatable. If forced, they will go back through the field again, eating the plants down to ground level. So in other words, though not their preferred method of grazing, if forced, sheep will graze down to the nub, licking their plates clean so to speak, as will cows, horses, goats, and even humans.
Author and long time shepherd, Bill Stockton, beautifully describes the grazing habits of sheep:
They are the most aggressive foragers of all farm animals, and by far, the most reliant. If forced into the pattern, they will nip grass to its roots, debark trees, gnaw painted boards for their minerals, and breech most any fence in their will to survive.
On the other hand, sheep, if given the freedom they desire and so rightly deserve, will treat the plants of the good earth with more respect than any other creature. It is not in their nature to be congested into herds of thousands. It is their nature to gently roam the hills in flocks of a couple hundred-to delicately choose small portions of every plant-to balance their own diet-to be free-to be left alone among their own kind-to disturb no other creature, and to give their life, if it is necessary.
To call this pacific animal the “Cleft-footed Locust” is to show lack of understanding of the gregarious nature of any mammal……
As for the range wars between cattlemen and shepherds, my research indicates that these conflicts arose out of many different unfortunate and very sad circumstances. The disputes and quarrels between cattle men and sheep herders in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, were ignited by politics, poor economy, drought, prejudice, and greed, ultimately leading to the tragic and horrific end of the lives of many sheep. So to say that” the cattle had nothing to eat once the sheep had grazed the field,” is simply a pat answer for a very volatile and complicated conflict.