WILD GEORGIA: Sheep help wage battle against invasive plants

An ewe and her lamb munch on invasive bamboo and English ivy in the backyard woods of Charles Seabrook in north DeKalb County. They are part of a flock of sheep whose temporary grazing clears the woods of unwanted vegetation to make way for native species. (Charles Seabrook for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
An ewe and her lamb munch on invasive bamboo and English ivy in the backyard woods of Charles Seabrook in north DeKalb County. They are part of a flock of sheep whose temporary grazing clears the woods of unwanted vegetation to make way for native species. (Charles Seabrook for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Charles Seabrook

Credit: Charles Seabrook

In our quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Decatur in DeKalb County, a large patch of woods stretches along a steep slope in back of our home and down to Burnt Fork Creek, a tributary of South Peachtree Creek. Harboring soaring tulip poplars, oaks, pines and other trees, the woods cover the creek’s floodplain, which is off-limits to development.

In essence, the woods make up most of our backyard and those of our neighbors — our personal green space. Years ago, the woods were healthy, mostly free of invasive, nonnative species such as English ivy, Chinese privet and bamboo.

The spirited songs of the wood thrush and the ovenbird rang from the woods in spring and summer. Trout lilies, bloodroot, wild ginger and other native wildflowers bloomed on the wooded slope and along the creek.

Then, the ivy, privet, bamboo and other invasives crept in and rapidly took over, smothering the forest floor and crowding out the native species. The wildflowers disappeared; the wood thrush and ovenbird were heard no more.

For us, removing the invasive plants was a laborious chore, a losing battle.

Now, we have some new allies: sheep. During the past few weeks, a flock of 20 rented sheep has been voraciously eating the ivy, privet and other nonnatives. In short order, they have cleared our woods of the invasive species. Our woods look like a healthy forest again.

“One of the main reasons I got the sheep — I want to see the trout lilies (return),” said neighbor Becky England.

Another neighbor, Daniel Ballard, a landscape ecologist who owns Convivial Landscapes, was elated to find a native alternate-leaf dogwood tree in the cleared-out woods. “It’ll be happy there now without competition from invasives,” he said.

John Wierwille, who rents the sheep to landowners, told me: “After the sheep leave a site, the soils are not disturbed and there are no chemical residues to harm insects or birds or salamanders; the invasive greens are gone, so it’s easy to put back native plants.” For more information, go to Ewe Can Do It Naturally’s Facebook page.

IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: The moon, now in last quarter, will be new on Saturday (March 13). Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn appear in the east before sunrise. Mars is in the southwest at dusk and sets in the west a few hours later.

Charles Seabrook can be reached at charles.seabrook@yahoo.com.

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