to protect their home Can a group of goats and sheep be effective in preventing wildfires? This female shepherd is gathering her herd to safeguard their habitat.
As Brittany “Cole” Bush guides a large group of resistant sheep and goats towards a small enclosure, dust swirls around her. Despite their reluctance, she can’t help but grin.
Bush is the founder of Shepherdess Land & Livestock, a ranch in the Ojai Valley that uses grazing animals to reduce the risk of wildfires in southern California.
Ruminants, such as cattle, have become more prevalent on land in the US west that is at risk of wildfires. According to Bush, there has been a rising need for her assistance in this area. Her team has utilized their large herds to graze on dry vegetation for various clients including landowners, government agencies, housing developments, and detention centers.
The age-old tradition is gaining importance in a time of uncertain climate conditions – and there is plenty of work to be done.
This is the reason why Bush is determined to promote diversity in the field of pastoral work for the upcoming generation. Being a woman who identifies as queer and grew up in an urban setting, she aims to create opportunities for nontraditional individuals like herself in the role of shepherding and also encourage a stronger connection with the environment.
During such a rapidly changing period in both Earth and society, she expressed that her motivation has now shifted towards finding ways to assist more individuals in entering this field.
Over the course of a recent weekend, Bush hosted a four-day bootcamp for a group of 14 individuals from various parts of the United States. As they learned how to properly tend to herds, they also discovered that caring for the land can aid in preventing wildfires. On a warm morning in early autumn, she found herself not only guiding animals, but also mentoring aspiring shepherds.
It can be arduous, but it is also rewarding.
According to Bush, individuals are making a valuable contribution to a larger cause and realize that it is worthwhile.
Sheep and goats possess innate abilities to prevent wildfires: they readily consume dry vegetation and are skilled at maneuvering through challenging landscapes that are inaccessible to machines. Their tiny hooves aid in aerating compacted soil, and their droppings provide valuable nutrients that promote the growth of indigenous plants.
However, precise grazing methods are necessary for prescribed grazing. Shepherds collaborate with dogs to safeguard and guide sheep and goats to appropriate locations. They must also have knowledge of which plants are most appealing at specific times, as well as how to synchronize grazing with climate and seasons. Additionally, they must carefully determine the appropriate combination and quantity of animals for certain plots of land.
If executed properly, this form of grazing can have a positive impact on the environment and also keep communities protected. With a strong sense of teamwork and commitment to addressing both the root causes and effects of the climate emergency, Bush and her team are spreading awareness.
In addition to this bootcamp, she established the Grazing School of the West. Her company has also teamed up with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to introduce individuals who are currently incarcerated to this work. This opportunity provides participants with a potential career path upon their release.
The beginning was marked by a canine companion.
Bush’s dream began with a canine companion.
As a enthusiastic college student looking to enter the field of conservation, Bush welcomed Becky, a border collie trained in herding, into her life. Becky would ultimately introduce her to the world that would shape her future.
She followed a winding path, spending time with shepherds in Spain and France and learning from Maasai cattle herders in Tanzania. She has also herded sheep through popular parks in the San Francisco Bay Area and established prescribed grazing programs for others. She even had brief periods of performing stunts in Hollywood.
However, in 2020, she acquired her dream property and began working on it.
Nestled near the Topatopa Mountains, the ranch is situated along a winding road in a scenic canyon near the artistic community of Ojai. This rural town, less than two hours away from Los Angeles, is a popular vacation spot, a celebrity hangout, and a center for environmental activism.
The area has also experienced severe weather occurrences, such as dry spells, floods, and a destructive fire in 2017 that destroyed over a thousand residential and commercial properties.
The tough circumstances have increased the importance of Bush’s endeavors, and they have also sparked more attention from individuals looking to have a positive impact; several of them have joined her ranching team permanently.
There are individuals such as Kaitlyn McQuillen, who worked as a tax accountant but had a strong love for animals before joining the team. Despite her desire to become a veterinarian, she had minimal experience when she joined last year – yet on her first day, she successfully delivered a litter of lambs.
John Fraher, the manager of operations and head shepherd, entered the field when Bush visited the coffee shop he was managing in San Diego. He quickly began to get involved in hands-on work.
He reflected on the strange shift that occurred in his life when he first started introducing himself as “John the shepherd.” Despite the challenging nature of the work, he has found a true passion for it. “I am able to contribute to the greater good by creating a more fire-safe environment for the community. Plus, I get to spend my days outdoors in stunning locations,” he shared.
Reworded: A team of shepherds would not be fully equipped without the presence of dogs. There are currently eight dogs residing and assisting on this property, with one being a stray mix that was saved from the streets of downtown LA.
Although the majority of the goats and sheep are simply identified by numbers, there are a few notable exceptions. These include the Suit, a muscular goat who appears to be wearing artificial muscles, Too-thrie, a sociable goat who leads the group with a bell, and Red, a sheep who has given birth to twins. In addition, the ranch is also inhabited by a group of chickens under the supervision of two aggressive geese named Domla and Schmidt, as well as two donkeys and a horse.
These creatures belong to the group created by a special mix of dedicated ranchers – and this is a significant factor in drawing new members.
As the sun started to lower beneath the hills, painting the pastures with a warm orange glow, it became evident that the bootcamp attendees were drawn to the simple life of the countryside.
Steven Gutierrez looked out at the numerous sheep and goats, enjoying the scent of sage carried by the breeze. It felt like a completely different world from his hometown of Compton. “This is my idea of paradise,” he remarked as he observed a tarantula scurrying into the enclosure.
The sector is facing challenges, as recent studies have exposed widespread exploitation of labor and mistreatment of migrant shepherds. Bush believes that this issue can be addressed by involving individuals who share her values and prioritize the well-being of workers.
She expressed optimism about the potential for progress in our industry, which promotes both environmental sustainability and fair, satisfying employment opportunities for everyone. This is the path we are following.
She is trying to impart this message to participants in the bootcamp, such as Gutierrez, who could continue to advance the cause.
At the conclusion of the fourth day, the team assembled one final time beneath the trees before embarking on their journey home. They departed with both newfound knowledge and new bonds. While the weekend may have been coming to a close, for some it signified a fresh start. Bush is confident that her cause will continue to gain momentum.
“The bond between humans and animals and their connection to the land will remain constant,” she stated. “Despite our reliance on technology, our need for this connection will persist – along with the occupations that nurture our relationship with the earth.”