The number of sheep in the US has been steadily dropping, but many farmers still use sheep to clear the grass in their orchards. While I personally prefer goats for mowing, sheep seem to work well enough. However, one of the only downsides is that sheep might also eat your fruit tree’s fruit, leaves, branches, and bark.
So, just how likely is this? Will sheep really eat your fruit trees? Here’s what I found.
If left alone with fruit trees, sheep will eat many of the lower leaves and often strip the trunk’s bark. They’ll also eat the fruit, both fallen and on the tree. For this reason, many farmers fence off their fruit trees or block the lower half of the tree from being eaten.
So, is it possible to run them in orchards, or will they do too much damage? And even if sheep damage your fruit trees while they graze, is it enough to kill your fruit trees? Let’s try to answer these.
Can Sheep Graze in Orchards?
Sheep are machines when it comes to grazing and moving grass. Keeping the grass and weed population down in orchards means less chance for disease and pests. The soil also benefits from their manure. The increased sanitation and fertilization are why many homesteaders run them through their orchards. However, many of them also have trouble with the sheep.
Sheep can graze in orchards, but will likely eat the leaves and fruit within reach. They’ll even stand on their hind legs to reach higher vegetation. Sheep will also rub their heads and horns on the lower branches, which breaks them, and sometimes eat the trunk’s bark. Proper fencing is key to protecting your orchard.
If sheep are let into the orchards and are unsupervised, they’ll quickly eat all the fruit and leaves they can, especially the bushes and the newer growth. Some farmers don’t let sheep graze their orchards until the fruit trees are mature enough to have many of its branches and leaves out of reach of the sheep.
Sheep can eat grass too fast, especially if there’s a lot of them. If you’re finding that the grass isn’t enough, and they start munching on your fruit trees, consider reducing the number of sheep that graze and maybe even rotate plots. Generally, five sheep per acre is enough to graze an orchard, but it depends on the size of grass and vegetation.
If you’re on the fence about letting sheep graze your orchards, try doing a trial period for a couple of days and see if they do more good than harm.
Will Sheep Kill Your Fruit Trees?
Your fruit trees can quickly be damaged by sheep. The fruit, leaves, branches, and trunks can all be destroyed, leaving the tree with few recourses to survive. If this happens enough times, you could lose the majority of your orchard. While this damage is concerning, is it enough to kill fruit trees?
If sheep are breaking lower branches and eating the fruit, leaves, and bark of off the trunk, the fruit tree will have a hard time surviving. Especially if the majority of its foliage is lost. Larger, more mature fruit trees can survive if they have most of their foliage out of reach.
Sheep can reach a maximum height of 4.5 feet if they stand on their hind legs. While they can’t reach as high as goats, any vegetation within this range can be eaten quickly. Sheep normally go for the leaves and fruit first, and then trunk’s bark second.
The reason why sheep will eat the fruit tree’s bark is due to a mineral deficiency. When sheep run low on nutrients and minerals, they’ll eat bark to restore those levels. To help avoid this, provide your sheep with a mineral block a few weeks prior to having them mow the orchard.
Sheep will also eat many of the fallen fruit as well as the fruit still on the trees. They’ll also rub their heads on the branches and trunks to scratch, causing breakage and damaging the fruit trees’ trunks.
As long as your fruit trees have a lot of upper growth that the sheep can’t reach, the trees should be fine. The lower half of the tree will still likely get damaged, but if the tree is larger they should survive. To help prevent damage, make sure your sheep have plenty of grass to eat and provide them with a mineral block. They might still eat some of the leaves, but they shouldn’t bother the trees as much.
How to Stop Sheep From Eating Fruit Trees
If your sheep are eating your fruit trees, it’s probably time to either take them out of the orchard or put up some protective measures. Here’s a quick list of what you can do to prevent sheep from damaging fruit trees.
- Fence off a path away from the fruit trees
- Use sheep fencing around the fruit trees
- Provide a mineral block 2-3 weeks prior to grazing the orchard
- Remove sheep with bad behavior from the herd
- Build cages around the tree
- Use weeder geese instead of sheep
Fencing off a path from the fruit trees is pretty standard, and you might have tried this already. The only problem is that many orchards aren’t spaced for this and the trees are still within range of the sheep’s mouths. If you’re not seeing results, consider trying one of the following methods.
Installing sheep fencing around fruit trees can work, but can be expensive and might not look the best. If you can swing it, it might be worth it. Some homesteaders wrap chicken wire around the fruit trees’ trunks, but this can cause problems when the tree grows and the wire cuts into it. Additionally, the sheep can use the chicken wire to climb higher and reach more fruit and leaves.
As mentioned before, giving your sheep a mineral block a few weeks before they graze around fruit trees can help them not eat the bark off of the trunks. If your sheep don’t have enough minerals, they’ll likely go straight for the bark.
When you have a sheep that’s behaving poorly and getting into everything, it might be best to separate it from the grazing herd. It will quickly teach the other sheep this behavior and soon you could have a pretty destructive herd. By removing them, putting them in a separate paddock, and assigning them a different task on the homestead you can help save your fruit trees.
Cages can be built around the fruit trees by using T-posts and connecting them with wire. While this method can be tedious to install, it will be effective in reducing damage to your trees.
Lastly, if you’ve tried just about everything, and can’t get your sheep to stop eating or damaging your fruit trees, consider using weeder geese instead. They’ll still eat the weeds and won’t be able to reach most of the leaves and fruit.
The solution you choose to limit sheep from eating your fruit trees will be unique to you, your farm, and the herd. If you’re not getting good results from your sheep grazing around your fruit trees, try other options.
If you’re just about done with letting sheep into your orchard, try looking into weeder geese. They’re less damaging and will still mow the grass and weeds.