Saskatoon

Baa, ram, chew: Flock of sheep near Saskatoon doing its bit for conservation

Sue Michalsky says it can feel a little lonely spending her days from dawn until dusk on the prairie grassland near Saskatoon, but she is far from alone.

Shepherd Sue Michalsky working dusk 'til dawn with flock of sheep at Northeast Swale

Shepherd Sue Michalsky, pictured with Brownie the sheep and sheepdog Jake, is tending to a flock of more than 200 sheep at the Northeast Swale conservation area near Saskatoon. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Sue Michalsky says it can feel a little lonely spending her days from dawn until dusk on the prairie grassland near Saskatoon, Sask. but she is far from alone.

Michalsky is the shepherd for a flock of some 270 sheep in the Meewasin Northeast Swale conservation area.

The sheep have one job: to munch their way through weeds and invasive plants that make it harder for native birds to live there.

As their guide, Michalsky spends every day from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. moving the sheep from plot to plot.  

Speaking over the faint sound of bleating from a mottled cluster of brown and white bodies, Michalsky said the sheep were unknowingly helping the local bird population as they filled their bellies.  

Brownie is one of more than 200 sheep tasked with eating down invasive shrubs that make it harder for grassland birds to live at the Northeast Swale conservation area near Saskatoon. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

For the birds

"Grassland birds are not really fond of shrubs so one of the things we're targeting is to try and knock back or reduce the amount of shrub that's here so the grassland birds have some more habitat to nest and hunt in," said Michalsky.

Michalsky hauled the flock of wild sheep, and one tame orphan named Brownie, from her ranch near Eastend, about 400 kilometres southeast of Saskatoon.

She has an education in conservation work but said the Meewasin Valley Authority project was her first opportunity to try invasive species grazing in the field.

"They're probably more qualified to be here than I am," said Michalsky.

"They've been out on leafy spurge grazing projects before and this is my first."

The short-eared owl, common nighthawk, Sprague's pipit and the western meadowlark are among the species the sheep are helping to protect.

Michalsky, her dogs and another worker will be tending to the flock on the swale until late September.

The Meewasin Valley Authority said the sheep play an important role in addressing a critical issue. It said only 20 per cent of native prairie is left in Saskatchewan and there is a 70 per cent decline in grassland birds.

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