I love visiting my sheep this time of year. Whether for feeding, checking them over, or tending a sick animal, whenever I get close to them, I get the distinct smell of Christmas. The aroma of evergreens hovers around them like the smell of liquor around an alcoholic—without the negative health effects, of course! Yes, I love wandering through the flock the month or so just after Christmas!
Beginning a few days after Christmas, we begin accepting Christmas trees from friends and neighbors. Our criteria are pretty simple: the trees must not be sprayed green (as many commercially sold trees are; you can tell by looking closely at the needles and trunk) and they should still be holding their needles fairly well. If we get trees that are relatively fresh and unsprayed, our sheep will eat most of the needles and begin to strip away the smaller branches and bark. They LOVE Christmas trees and will eat as much as they can pull off with their teeth!
The first year we attempted feeding trees to our sheep, they weren’t quite sure the trees were edible. I think we gave them two trees, and it took weeks for them to strip off the edible parts. But sheep learn from both their individual past experience and from the experience of the elders of the flock. Most of our ewes now know what good eating these trees can be, so when I bring in fresh trees, I am swarmed by sheep trying to grab a nibble as I walk by! They can’t wait for me to put the tree in place; they eat it on the go as I move it into position!
Most of you may not know this, but sheep don’t normally have very good breath. Because they digest their feed through fermentation, they belch a lot, and that belching can smell pretty bad, depending on what they have ingested. This time of year, however, their breath has a lovely clean Pine-Sol smell. This piney scent hovers around them and fills the barns and lean-tos, constantly reminding me of the holiday we just celebrated. It is a lovely way to finish the holiday season!
The benefits of these trees are not just superficial, however. Our sheep get nutrients from evergreens that they can’t get from any other forage—and they know it! This is one of the reasons they so love eating the trees we provide: they can stock up on these vitamins and minerals that they would otherwise not get from a natural source.
It took us a while to figure out how to get enough trees for our flock to eat well for more than just a few days. Then a few years ago we discovered that one of the local parks collects trees in one of their parking lots for future mulching of their pathways. After calling the park supervisors, we discovered that they were happy to share their bounty. They allow us to pick up a few trees each day and drop off the remnants when our sheep are done with them. In this way, the trees end up being recycled twice: once as food for our sheep and then again when the trunks and bigger branches are mulched for the park pathways. The park benefits by having lighter trees to heft into the chipper, our sheep end up with an additional food source, and I get to smell piney-fresh breath around my sheep for about a month after Christmas! It’s a win-win-win!
So if you happen to visit our farm in the coming weeks, don’t be surprised if you get a faint whiff of Christmas. It’s only our pine-filled sheep, happily cudding and belching their favorite post-holiday meal – and that is a very good thing!