Sheep Control Brush Under Power Lines
Last summer, some 500 Rambouillet wethers enjoyed a fine cuisine of brushy vegetation under power lines on a 13-mile, 460-acre strip of Public Service Company of New Hampshire (PSNH) right-of-way in Nottingham, Barrington, Lee, Durham and Madbury, New Hampshire. Little did they know that they were part of an experiment to control vegetation under power lines without using herbicides or chainsaws.
Dick Henry is the "guiding genius" behind the New Hampshire Grazing Power Project, according to N.H. Agriculture Commissioner Stephen H. Taylor (Weekly Market Bulletin, N.H. Dept. of Ag., July 8, 1998). Since 1970, Henry has been alternating between sheep farming on large farms in the United States and Canada, and doing environmental policy work. He is past president of the Audubon Society of New Hampshire. Now he has a company, Bellwether Solutions, that, with PSNH, undertook the $175,000 grazing experiment.
Henry wanted to use Rambouillets because of their strong flocking character, and he wanted to get all of the wethers from a single farm that was certified by a veterinarian as disease-free. "There weren’t any farms large enough east of the Mississippi that could provide" such a flock, he said, so he ended up getting them from a flock of 5,000 in Montana.
Despite a rainy spring that caused grazed plants to rebound quickly, the project went very well—so well, in fact, that an expanded second year experiment is being planned. The sheep fed on leaves of target woody species—maple, birch, oak, cherry and poplar—that were up to 5 feet tall. The flock, confined by a moveable electric fence, can control growth on about 4 acres of land in one and one-half to two days, then they are moved to another section of right-of-way. After going over the 13-mile test plot once, which could take 30 or 40 days, they were moved back to the beginning of the grazing site to be rotated over all of the test acreage a second time. The power company expected that two defoliations would prevent woody plants from growing again.
The flock was shepherded by Joshua Moody, a 24-year-old Maine native who already had considerable experience tending sheep. For two years he was the farm manager at the Sheep Dairy Center of Vermont, where he managed the rotational grazing, milking and breeding of 150 ewes. He also managed the rotational grazing of 300 sheep for the Mountain Sheep Project at Killington Ski Area, where the sheep kept growth down on the steepest slopes.
Moody was assisted by Blue and Nick, border collies who helped move the sheep; and Gordo, a Great Pyrenees guard dog who kept coyotes and other predators away. They kept the flock fenced during the day and in a portable corral at night.
When Moody encountered vegetation that was too tall for the sheep to handle, he cut it manually. He also guided the sheep toward target species (woody, deciduous trees, primarily) and tried to minimize their impact on nontarget plants. In addition, he seeded test areas with Kentucky bluegrass or Dutch white clover after the sheep grazed those areas in an effort to encourage more low-growing species, minimizing the need for trimming in later years.
The sheep had no trouble with predators, and Moody and his flock had considerable support from residents along the power line. "Many times he got help [from landowners] moving the sheep, or was fed or offered a hot shower or bath," says Martin Murray of PSNH.
At the end of the day, Moody would retire to his trailer, which was powered by two solar panels, and listen to the radio, write letters using his 1930s-vintage typewriter, or read.
And at the end of the grazing season, the sheep were moved to Florida, where they are taking part in another experiment aimed at controlling some 20 types of exotic, invasive species there.
Experts from the University of New Hampshire and from UNH Cooperative Extension are studying the grazing habits of the sheep to see how well they controlled unwanted vegetation compared with other methods of control. While results of these comparisons weren’t in yet as we went to press, Martin Murray told The MOF&G that PSNH was encouraged enough by the results that they had seen to be "working toward another test year in 1999--possibly a bit expanded in the number of sheep and amount of land... The big picture was very encouraging." Still, he says it’s too soon to tell whether grazing will prove practical from a business standpoint over the long term—"whether the economics will work out to favor our customers and whether the sheep do the job needed to be done."
"With luck," says Dick Henry, the sheep "will be back next spring to pick up again. The project is still in the pilot stage here. We will know in another year or two whether it’s cost-competitive."
When asked if he thought sheep could be used to control woody "weeds" on blueberry barrens, Henry said that they had potential. "They like any of the tall, deciduous trees," he said, although he added that they will not eat sweet fern and bayberry. "It will be interesting to see the effects of [the sheeps’] fertilization on the blueberries along the power lines—there were a lot of them there."
Bill Frain, president of PSNH, hopes the project will prove that sheep are a viable option for managing vegetation. PSNH controls vegetation on about 25,000 acres of transmission rights-of-way along some 1,800 miles in New Hampshire. Each year about 5,000 acres are cleared, primarily using mechanical mowers and hand cutting—at an expense of $1.5 million per year. (Other utilities often use herbicides, but PSNH has not for several years.)
For more information about The Grazing Power Project, contact Dick Henry at
Bellwether Solutions, 1 South St., Concord NH 03301, Tel. 603-224-3821; Martin Murray at Public Service Co. of New Hampshire, 1000 Elm St., Manchester NH 03101, Tel. 603-634-2228; or see PSNH’s website atwww.psnh.com