“Sheepwrecked” in Yosemite, Santa Cruz I., and the UK

140 years ago sheep were devastating the slopes and meadows of the Sierras and John Muir launched an effort — which took decades — to remove them. He wrote:

It is impossible to conceive of a devastation more universal than is produced among the plants of the Sierra by sheep…The greass is eaten close and trodden until it resembles a corral… Where the soil is not preserved by a strong elastic sod, it is cut up and beaten to loose dust and every herbaceous plant is killed. Tees and bushes escape, but they appear to stand in a desert very different from the delicately planted forest floor which is gardneed with flowers arranged in open separated groups. Nine-tenths of the whole surface of the Sierra has been swept by the scourge. It demands legislative interference. [from his journals for September 19, 1873]

Recently the well-known environmental columnist for the Guardian, George Monbiot, has launched his own campaign against the destruction wrought by sheep on a landscape, bY opposing — in a contrarian fashion — the designation of England's famous Lake District as a World Heritage site. He writes:

The celebrated fells have been thoroughly sheepwrecked: the forests which once covered them have been reduced by the white plague to bare rock and bowling green. By eating the young trees that would otherwise have replaced their parents, the sheep wiped the hills clean. They keep them naked, mowing down every edible plant that raises its head, depriving animals of their habitats. You’ll see more wildlife in Birmingham. Their sharp hooves compact the soil, ensuring that rain flashes off, causing floods downstream. This is the state which the bid would help preserve in perpetuity, preventing the ecological restoration of England’s biggest national park.

This is part of Monbiot's rewilding campaign, as he states in a manifesto:

Through rewilding – the mass restoration of ecosystems – I see an opportunity to reverse the destruction of the natural world. Researching my book Feral, I came across rewilding programmes in several parts of Europe, including some (such as Trees for Life in Scotland and the Wales Wild Land Foundation) in the UK, which are beginning to show how swiftly nature responds when we stop trying to control it (18,19). Rewilding, in my view, should involve reintroducing missing animals and plants, taking down the fences, blocking the drainage ditches, culling a few particularly invasive exotic species but otherwise standing back. It’s about abandoning the Biblical doctrine of dominion which has governed our relationship with the natural world.

It's so difficult for us to imagine a landscape before the arrival of us and our domestic animals. Monbiot quotes a forester named Ritchie Tassell sarcascitally wondering: "How did nature cope before we came along?"  

Herdwich sheep lake district large


"Rewilding" is a concept introduced in this country by Dave Foreman, of Earth First! fame.  I think it's best-known example in the U.S. is the idea of a route built over or under a highways to allows animals, especially migrating animals, to pass safely

But removing the sheep from the Lake District sounds like a start.

Anyone who has been to Santa Cruz Island, in a national park off the coast of Southern California, can can readily imagine how different and pleasant that island would be with hills of vineyard, producing tens of thousands of gallons of wine, instead of the unimaginably huge sheep farm that took over. 

For many years, dating back to the Spanish era, Santa Cruz island produced wine for the entire state, until a rancher named Ed Stanton took control, idled the vineyard, and imported thousands of sheep. A sucessful sheep operation resulted, and produced revenue while devastating the island, but eventually was bought out by the parks service. The sheep were eradicated in recent years. 

Point being: the Lake District too could benefit from a rewilding — and sheep removal. 

[We have no pictures, apparenlty, of Ed Stanton having the wine casks emptied and 26,000 gallons of wine poured out on the ground, but we do have a history of his operation. ]

Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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