Sheep eat their way along swale

It’s been six weeks of work for a flock of 300 sheep that are munching their way through the shrubs and non-native grasses that have overtaken natural species in the Northeast Swale conservation area of Saskatoon.

The ruminants are part of an effort to enhance the native prairie of this nature preserve and improve the nesting habitat of grassland birds such as Sprague’s pipit and chestnut-collared longspur.

“Grassland birds have declined by 70 percent since the 1970s,” said Renny Grilz, resource management officer for the Meewasin Valley Authority, which is managing the site on behalf of the city.

“What’s happening is as this shrub habitat increases, you’re losing your grasslands and you’re getting less grass cover, which is not providing suitable habitat for the birds.”

Under the three-year Habitat Stewardship Program, Meewasin is using various methods to enhance bird habitat and biodiversity on all its sites. Efforts include invasive species control, targeted conservation grazing and prescribed burning.

Sue Michalsky, of Eastend, Sask., and her flock of hair sheep were contracted over the past six weeks to graze 30 acres of swale within the city of Saskatoon.

“I’m a rancher but they call me the shepherd here,” said Michalsky, as she and her sheepdogs, Jake and Oz, kept an eye on things from outside the electric net fencing that surrounds the flock.

“The shrubs are probably the biggest focus of the sheep grazing project. From a conservation or an agricultural perspective, that’s something that you want to get under control. Even if this were ranch land, the grazing opportunities are being severely limited by the shrub invasion,” she said.

Each day at about 7a.m., Michalsky, Jake and Oz, along with assistant Meghan Johnston move the sheep from their night pen to a grazing paddock.

When she’s not driving to get supplements for the sheep, Michalsky said she spends a lot of time talking with various groups that visit, such as elementary and high school classes, university students and even a busload of retirees.

The six-week contract was completed Sept. 15 and the sheep did their jobs. Thousands of boulders and large patches of bare ground are now visible, free of the buck brush (western snowberry and wolf willow) that smothered the ground. Hawks can be seen circling overhead, able to hunt for ground squirrels again.

“We’re noticing a decrease in shrub cover and seeing some of these grassland birds utilizing the site and moving back in,” said Grilz.

The Northeast Swale is officially termed a post-glacier channel scar of the South Saskatchewan River created by glaciers in the river valley 10,000 years ago.

After glaciers receded, one of the largest pieces of unbroken prairie, riparian, forest and wetland in the Saskatoon region was created.

The swale runs from the river within the city limits for 26 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon before re-entering the South Saskatchewan River north of the Clarksboro Ferry crossing between Warman and Aberdeen.

The city purchased 740 acres of land more than a decade ago, which the previous owner had grazed as part of a cattle ranch. An absence of ruminants since then allowed shrubs to invade and overtake natural grasses.

Grilz said Meewasin hopes to do more sheep grazing next year and has plans to build permanent fencing to include cattle.

However, as the landscape is slowly stewarded back to its more natural state, another form of invasion is happening from two-legged species who are steadily encroaching and surrounding it.

Within sight of the grazing sheep are row upon row of newly built residences. The sounds of electric tools can be heard as another subdivision sprouts up beside the swale.

It’s a concern for Grilz and Michalsky.

“There’s some pressure to develop some portions of the swale,” said Grilz.

“Some portions will remain as sort of a protected conservation area, but there’s some pressure to make it more of a passive recreational area as well so people can go in and hike. One of the objectives we’re trying to do is we’re trying to manage that site as a natural area as a native grassland, but also allow people on the site.

“It’s a real juggling act of trying to balance wildlife, human use and then also trying to manage that native prairie. We’re trying to balance all three.”

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