Although the title of this blog may lead you to believe that I’ve been sitting here and having deep thoughts on the meaning of the holiday, this post and the next will actually address sheep and their love of eating Christmas trees. There are trace nutrients in evergreens that, I’ve been told, cannot be gotten from any other plant, and since Christmas trees are usually free for the taking after Christmas, they seem the perfect source! After many years of feeding our own trees — as well as those from friends, neighbors, and finally, the public at large — I’ve accumulated a lot of information that might be of interest to others who are interested in doing the same. So in this blog and the next, I’ll relate the tree-related info I have so far, all in one place for everyone’s benefit. So here goes.
I always suggest that you begin with your own tree and then spread the word among neighbors and friends as your flock develops a taste for evergreens. Make sure to remove all tinsel and any forgotten ornaments or other contaminants that could injure your sheep. Once they are really chowing down, you can also contact local parks that might recycle trees by chipping them into mulch for paths. We spoke to our local park, and they were happy to allow us to pick up trees from their drop-off point and then bring them back when the sheep were done with them. In this way, the trees are double-recycled! After the people use the trees to celebrate the holiday, the sheep recycle the needles as feed, and finally, the park recycles the trees as trail mulch. It’s a win-win-win!
Christmas trees come in different sizes and varieties, and some are obviously better eating for sheep than others. Our sheep much prefer the long-needled trees — with the exception of Scotch pine. Their very favorite is probably white pine, followed by both Frasier fir and Concolor fir, and then the rest, with Scotch pine in last place.
When picking through a variety of trees, look for fresh, soft needles that are still holding well to the branches. To identify Scotch pine, look for long-needled trees that have very rough bark — even in the middle of the tree, Scotch pines have rough bark and many, many branches. If the tree is long-needled and has a relatively smooth trunk, the sheep will love it (it’s likely white pine!), but if it has rough bark, it’s best to leave it behind. The short needled trees (spruces and firs) fall in the mid-range of desired varieties; as long as they are not dried out, the sheep will eat the needles and smaller branches. Any tree that is dry and losing needles will be much less desirable than a fresher tree, but late in the season when that is all that is available, it is obvious that the sheep consider the dry tree better than nothing at all.
Many of the long-needled trees (and some of the short) are sprayed with a flame-retardant — and this is not good eating for sheep. In fact, in the early years of feeding trees, we couldn’t tell why the sheep were leaving some trees untouched while another tree of the same variety was eaten all the way to the trunk. Eventually I realized that the untouched trees had been sprayed. You can tell by looking at the trunk: a sprayed tree will have a green surface stain while an un-sprayed tree will not. Sprayed trees can also have an unusually green appearance to the needles. This spraying is most common in the long-needled varieties (particularly white pine), but any tree could be sprayed, so we check each one before loading.
Once you have your tree(s) loaded, tie them down well and head for home! Friday’s blog will cover things to know once you arrive home, such as where to put the trees and how to get your flock to eat them.