SHEEP CAMPING EXPLAINED
Highfield Farm and Woodland, as regular followers will already know, is a unique combination of small-scale farming and a conservation area. While two-thirds of our farm protects critically endangered habitat for all time, our efforts to protect soil, habitat and biodiversity don’t stop at the boundary of our conservation land. In the next few blog posts, I will outline just some of the things we are doing to rehabilitate Highfield, but first, a little about sheep behaviour.
Sheep, being small herd animals, like to be together – it’s their safety mechanism. As well as seeking safety in numbers, sheep seek to feel safe by gathering at the tops of hills. Here they can see danger coming, smell it and form a tight herd to protect themselves, their lambs and each other. This is especially the case at night.
This is called ‘camping’.
If there is only one preferred high point in a paddock, that’s where they will gather, night after night (after night). The main area on Highfield Farm where the sheep gathered at night is what we have called ‘Sheep Camp Hill’. Before our paddocks were divided up into smaller paddocks (which may become a topic for another blog post), this was the preferred spot for the sheep to gather at night.
When we first bought the property, Sheep Camp Hill was a stinking pile of sheep dung. Dried and fresh dung was inches deep on this hill. Sheep Camp Hill grew nothing, nothing – it was too poisoned even for weeds!
Now, I’m not overly sensitive about smells, but in that first year or two, the stench of ammonia was enough to make me wince. I wish I could find a photo of how it looked. I have searched our photos, and no image can be found. I think it profoundly distressed us, and we just didn’t want to take a photo of it.
The odour of Sheep Camp Hill was a relatively minor problem. Whenever it rained, because there was no vegetation to halt run-off, dung-suspended topsoil mud streamed from the hill in a rush. Because of the steep slope of the hill, the velocity of the run-off had started to open up erosion spots in the valley below.
Something had to be done!
SO WHAT DID WE DO?
Well, we did very little. All we did was fence off the hill so the sheep couldn’t camp there, and then we waited.
- In the first year, the hill grew thigh-high weeds.
- The second year, knee-high weeds.
- By the third year, you could see evidence that some grasses had started to re-vegetate the hill. Even through the three-year drought, the hill gradually revegetated.
Over time the weeds have totally disappeared, and the grasses have thickened. Now Sheep Camp Hill is fully vegetated with grasses. When it rains, the rain soaks into the ground. It doesn’t run off with great velocity.
Now the hill gently seeps, the rain is held for longer in the soil further nourishing the grasses that are growing on the hill, further improving the soil.
And the erosion patches in the valley? Well, with decreased run-off, the erosion scars have vegetated and started to heal.
And what did we do? We just observed the problem, did a bit of fencing and had patience.
No spraying of weeds, no high-tech solutions, no inputs, no agronomists, no consultants, no major earthworks, no tractors.
We are here to make a positive difference, I think we’ve made a difference here.
STILL MUCH TO DO
There is still so much to do at Highfield. There are other areas of our grazing land that need some intervention to improve the soil, lessen run-off and increase biodiversity, but we are getting there. Sometimes the intervention required can be quite minor, like putting a fenceline in and watching and waiting.
SEE THE BEAUTY OF SHEEP CAMP HILL TODAY
For another view of the re-vegetated Sheep Camp Hill, take a look at this beautiful advert shot here at Highfield featuring Wiradjuri Ballet dancer Ella Havelka. Much of this ad was filmed on Sheep Camp Hill.
NOTE: Fencing off Sheep Camp Hill was part funded by a Landcare Project. The rocky nature of Sheep Camp Hill also makes it great habitat for reptiles. We hope to see them return to the hill, we are sure they will, we just need to be patient.