Wildfires have always shaped California’s landscape, but as warmer spring and summer temperatures return year after year and cause earlier snowmelts, the state’s wildfire season is starting earlier and lasting longer. Before the hoses and fire retardants ever come out, California deploys a different kind of fire-fighter – one on four legs.
For John Cubiburu’s flock of more than 5,000 ewes, there is one goal during the spring: eat the vegetation that would otherwise become a fire hazard in the dry, hot California summer. According to John, using animals as a form of fire prevention is an efficient and cost-effective alternative to mowing, which can sometime spark a fire itself, or chemical weed killers.
“The goal with the sheep is never to overgraze, but to treat it kind of like a lawnmower,” John says. “When we’re doing any type of fire prevention… a lot of it is timing because you can’t always force an animal to eat something that’s not in its most palatable state. You have to time it right.”
That means knowing exactly what type of vegetation needs eating on a particular plot of land and which animals are best suited for the job. For example, a young lamb and an older ewe are likely to prefer different types of grazing, so John is able to choose the best animals for every task. And what about those weeds and grasses that are less appealing to sheep? According to Frankie Arburua III, who started F Ewe Sheep Company four years ago, that’s when you double down – with goats.
“Sheep and goats combined actually work really well as the sheep eat the grasses, while the goats eat shrubs, thistles, and bushes,” he explains, adding that the animals work fast. “The speed of clearing land is dependent on the type of grasses and weeds the sheep are grazing. Generally speaking, a group of 500 ewes can eat about three acres per day. They eat most everything, but goats are helpful in areas where there are some shrubs and bushes to complement the sheep.”
On top of clearing the land and reducing the risk of fire, the sheep and goats also play a big role in fertilizing the soil, an added bonus as much of the grazing area serviced by livestock companies like Cubiburu Livestock and F Ewe Sheep Company is local farmland.