Melissa Kelley pointed to two spots on a nearly vertical slope in the hills surrounding the Pitchess Detention Center in Castaic on Friday.
One was like any hillside you’d see in the area during the summer — completely filled with dried and dead brush. The other, however, was almost completely cleared by non-human brush clearance experts.
Kelley, acting director of food services and gender responsive services for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, said over 400 goats and sheep from the Ojai-based Shepherdess Land and Livestock Co. can clear an acre a day of dried brush.
While slower than humans with weed wackers and chainsaws, the age-old tactic of shepherding can be used in a modern way called “prescribed grazing.”
“It’s one of the most ancient jobs that are out there that could really be replicated anywhere in the world,” said Kelley. “One thing that doesn’t discriminate (are) wildfires, crime, those things happen everywhere. So a wildfire that starts here or a fire that starts out in the community is something that can impact everyone.”
Pichess has partnered with the Shepherdess Land and Livestock Co. and the Grazing School of the West to create a model education program that teaches inmates vocational skills such as shepherding, grazing and livestock management.
The pilot program only has four students so far, and it is not available to the maximum-security inmates at the facility, but Kelley and Cole Bush, owner of Shepherdess Land and Livestock, said they’re hoping the program can expand within Pitchess and, eventually, to other detention centers.
“If we can bring this model and also teach individuals that are incarcerated, potentially how to work in this field, it makes the entire community ultimately safer,” said Kelley. “We also know that when you work with animals, when you work with your hands, when you learn new skill sets, it really reduces the likelihood that recidivism will happen.”
The use of goats and sheep for wildfire prevention has occurred in the Santa Clarita Valley before. In a place where fires are common, Bush said the method could be particularly useful for a number of reasons.
The method is called “prescribed grazing” because the organization takes different factors into account when deciding how large an area to graze, which animals to use and what time of year to use them.
Sheep are grazers, and they prefer grasses and forages that are closer to the ground. Goats, on the other hoof, are browsers. Similar to deer, they like to mainly “eat up” — meaning they’re able to reach branches of low hanging trees that can be a source of fuel for fires. Goats can also browse the understory — an underlying layer of vegetation — which is also known as the “fire ladder” of trees and shrubs.
“This is something that’s been going on for millennia — people working with animals. So we kind of call our work an ‘ancient futures approach,’” said Bush. “We work with ecological processes to achieve our goals for public safety, for ecological enhancement, as well as creating jobs, green jobs, that can feel good in our world.”
Bush also said using goats and sheep can help put native firetop-tolerant plants back into the landscape since brush that provides fuel for fires are usually invasive plants. Because the animals eat these invasive plants, their seeds aren’t able to spread their species and therefore it allows native plants to flourish.
One of the ways the organization is able to target specific areas and avoid native plants is by using an electrified fence to keep them in, and predators away, from a specific area. The fence is at a voltage that does not cause injury or major pain for anyone who contacts it — it just deters. These fences are also powered by solar-charged batteries so they can be transported and used in remote locations.
The method could potentially be used anywhere, according to the organizers of Friday’s demonstration. Because goats and sheep can climb nearly vertical slopes, they can graze areas that would be nearly impossible to clear by humans. Bush suggested it can even be used around residents’ homes.
“There is something joyful about seeing sheep and goats grazing behind a home, creating a full break, rather than your weed whippers or your mowers and chainsaws,” said Bush. “We use these animals in such a way that it is enjoyable for people who get to see them.”
The job still requires human shepherds, though — and a “landscape guardian” dog — which means it could create an industry in Southern California if the method is used on a large enough scale. This could be another avenue for inmates after they’ve been released, according to Kelley.