Volunteer with 340 merino sheep at a Santa Barbara preserve

On one side of a path in the idyllic hills of Santa Barbara, a dense clump of dried out mustard rises more than six feet. Meanwhile, just across the way, the invasive plant is thinned to wisps.

Carolyn Chaney, 77, pointed out the difference in vegetation and also provided the reason: sheep.

“This is where they’ve been,” she said, pointing to the cleared patch of land.

Chaney would know. She’s a regular sheep docent at the 300-acre San Marcos Foothills Preserve, owned by Santa Barbara County and located between Santa Barbara and Goleta.

Docent Carolyn Chaney, 77, stands next to non-native mustard growing inside the San Marcos Foothills Preserve in Santa Barbara.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Ken Owen, executive director of Channel Islands Restoration, a nonprofit that provides stewardship for the preserve, said his team came up with the concept for the specialized docent.

“I don’t know of any other sheep docents anywhere in the world,” he said.

The docents are volunteers who essentially hang out at the preserve to say hello and explain why there are hundreds of even-toed ungulates munching away on the grasses. They’re provided with an information packet about the grazing project so they can answer questions that inquisitive hikers might pose.

For those who can’t make the trek and flag down a docent: The sheep are brought in to help restore native grasslands by chowing down on virulent invaders like the mustard, according to Channel Islands Restoration.

A sheep poking its head out from behind a rock.
A woman crouched down near some dry plant life.

A few hundred sheep, like this one, were trucked in to munch on invasive plants, allowing native ones to flourish inside the San Marcos Foothills Preserve in Santa Barbara. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times) Docent Carolyn Chaney, 77, crouches next to native plants, tar weed, left, and turkey mullein, growing inside the San Marcos Foothills Preserve in Santa Barbara. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In the spring of 2019, the preserve began supervised grazing with the goal of supporting a habitat for native birds, many of which are scarce or entirely absent. That November, the Cave fire ignited in the Santa Ynez Mountains and swept down furiously toward neighborhoods to the south. When the blaze reached the preserve, something curious happened: it laid down, allowing firefighters to put it out.

“So it has an incredible side effect of being able to save neighborhoods,” Owen said.

Fire officials agreed, and the Santa Barbara County Fire Safe Council is financially supporting the current cycle of grazing through a grant.

“It was obvious that the fire buffer provided by the grazed area was the primary factor in reducing the fire rate of spread and intensity thus allowing firefighters to aggressively suppress the fire,” Rob Hazard, division chief for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, wrote in a 2022 letter to Owen.

Despite the perceived benefits, grazing remains controversial.

Naturalist John Muir described sheep as “hoofed locusts” for their ability to strip the landscape. You don’t have to look far for a case study — a grim one lies about 30 miles off the coast of Ventura in the Channel Islands. Sheep arrived on the islands in the 19th century and chomped and stomped the land to destruction (with an assist from other ranching activities).

Hundreds of sheep graze in a field with mountains in the background.

Hundreds of merino sheep graze in the West Mesa area of the San Marcos Foothills Preserve.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Yet Owen said when grazing is controlled — meaning the livestock is monitored closely and moved often — sheep don’t just not damage the landscape, they improve it.

Owen said he recently had a heated 2½-hour conversation with a skeptic: “She said, ‘You have no idea what they’re eating there. You don’t have any idea whatsoever.’ She kept telling me that over and over again. It took me about an hour to calm her down and … say, ‘Oh, yes, we do.’”

Getting the woolly ruminants to chow down on the right plants comes down to timing, said Jack Anderson, co-owner and operator of Cuyama Lamb, which provides the grazing services.

The livestock is typically trucked in twice a year, he said. First they arrive early in the growing season, when moisture can prompt invasive Mediterranean annuals to push up quickly. Natives, often perennials, take longer to get going.

Thinning out invasive competition provides natives with the sunlight they need to germinate.

“Right now, that’s what’s happening,” Anderson said.

A second pass occurs in the later, dry season to remove what’s known as thatch from the ground.

Docent Carolyn Chaney walks past turkey mullein, foreground, a native plant.

Docent Carolyn Chaney walks past turkey mullein, foreground, a native plant growing in the San Marcos Foothills Preserve in Santa Barbara.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Sheep are currently grazing in the West Mesa area of the preserve, which in 2021 community stakeholders teamed up to buy from developers. The campaign raised $18.6 million to purchase the 101-acre site sacred to the Chumash tribe.

Since the program began — which, ecologically, is a short period of time — the percentage of native plants has increased, Anderson said.

Ground-nesting birds, such as the diminutive grasshopper sparrow, are more elusive. On May 12, 2001, in terms of sparrows, there were 25 singing males, three pairs, four “visuals” and two fly-over individuals on the preserve, according to the Channel Islands Restoration website. The birds have since vanished, which is believed to be linked to the removal of grazing cattle.

There’s no concerted effort to reintroduce the sparrows or other birds, Owen said, but the grazing creates a landscape more conducive to their nesting, foraging and other activities.

Managing the land is an ongoing effort, according to Anderson.

“We have been a little bit misguided in the way that we’ve been thinking about ecological management, which is that we want to reach a point where it’s now sort of naturally taking care of itself,” Anderson said, “and that is a condition that has never existed in California. Native Americans were constantly managing their environments on a huge scale.” That included burning vegetation, bringing in animals at certain times and tending trees.

Docent Debra Fedaleo photographs a sheep.

Docent Debra Fedaleo photographs one of the few hundred sheep at the San Marcos Foothills Preserve.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Docents can allay concerns about the sheep by explaining that the grazing is done in a methodical manner, Owen said. No expertise is required; those interested can sign up for a 2-hour 50-minute shift online. Slots are available through Nov. 6 at 9 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Most people are just delighted to see the animals, Owen said.

On a scorching early October afternoon, a short walk up a trail at the preserve’s West Mesa area provided a pastoral panorama. About 340 sheep in the merino family — whose wool is often used to make sweaters and socks — contentedly grazed on dry, yellow grass. Green live oaks dotted the otherwise desiccated landscape while the Pacific Ocean glittered below.

A large white dog — a Great Pyrenees and Kangal shepherd mix — rested near water troughs along with her two grandpuppies. (As a guard dog, it wouldn’t be her time to shine until later in the evening when predators like coyotes start to emerge.)

The sheep didn’t let out so much as a single “bah.” Instead, if you listened closely, you could hear the crunching sound of hundreds of mouths hard at work.

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