A little while back, my friend gifted me 2 sheep. Of course I said, “sure”. After all, sheep are grass eaters, right? Theyʻll be a cheap and easy way top keep the weeds down, fertility up and maybe even get some milk or something out of the whole deal.
Today, Iʻm going to tell you all about how it went raising two sheep in my half acre food forest. The pros and the cons.
But first, a little bit about the sheep.
Related: If you are going to have sheep, you are going to need a hoof trimmer. I would trim my sheepʻs hooves every 6-8 weeks here in Hawaii. This helps keep their hooves healthy and free of hoof rot. Now I like cheap tools that last a long time, and the hoof trimmers recommended here do just that. Donʻt waste your time with others.
History of Sheep in Hawaii
Sheep were first introduced to Hawaii in 1790 by Captain George Vancouver on a visit to Hawaii. King Kamehameha welcomed the gift, along with other livestock, as a way for the people of Hawaii to feed themselves.
There was a kapu put on these animals for 10 years as they were allowed to roam the wild and procreate. Unfortunately, what was a well meaning gesture soon got out of control. After 10 years the animals flourished and drastic measures had to be taken to control their population.
Cowboys were sent from the US and Mexico to help teach the native hawaiians how to control the stock. But to this day, there are still anumber of wild cow and sheep still roaming free on Hawaii Island.
They cause severe damage to the landscape, eating native plants, causing the decline of native birds. They bring with them invasive plants that replace the natives, that then become more prone to fire.
This damage has led the govt to enact eradication programs to control the numbers of wild sheep, goats and cattle, putting them at odds with hunters who want a sustainable source of meat.
Best thing we can do is have a balance. Maybe sheep do need to be fenced out of areas to ensure vulnerable native wildlife can flourish. Perhaps they belong on the farm instead?
Raising Sheep on Farms in Hawaii
Many people raise sheep on pasture in Hawaii. Grass grows plentiful in our tropical climate and sheep have plenty to eat. They can turn grass, which is inedible to us, into food that we can consume.
Animals are a vital part of a sustainable food system, no matter what the vegans tell you.
But do they belong in Hawaii? And can they even handle all of the rain? This post shares how sheep do in the rain, so be sure to read it before you go out and get yourself a few.
Sheep are mostly raised on pasture here in Hawaii. Pasture that did not exist before livestock showed up. Before livestock, that pastureland was forest. The forest held the soil, developed diverse ecosystems, and kept the hydraulic cycle in check.
Because of pasture we see erosion, loss of old growth forests and erratic rainfall patterns that cause even more destruction.
Do sheep have to be raised this way? My little experiment raising sheep in my half acre food forest gave me some answers to that question.
Insights On Raising Sheep In A Tropical Food Forest
A little over 8 months ago, in October of 2021, I brought two sheep home to my ½ acre off grid food forest located in Puna. They were both about 6 months old, a male and a female. The male was a St Croix crossed with Barbados and the female was a wild Muffalon Sheep.
I was so excited to have these 2 little lawn mowers to keep my grass down so I wouldnʻt have to weedwhack and mow anymore. Because if you live in East Hawaii, you know what a chore it is to weedwack and mow around here. Itʻs almost a weekly job!
I made a little enclosure for them to go into. This would be where they would sleep and get their treats such as corn, sweet mix and alfalfa. That way, if I ever needed to have them penned up in a smaller enclosure, they would go in willingly.
When they first got onto my property, I kept them in there for a few days so that they could establish it as home.
Then the gate was opened!
The whole food forest lay in wait for them to feed on to their hearts delight. Being that they were sheep and all Iʻve ever heard or known sheep to do is eat grass, I assumed thatʻs what they would head straight for.
And I was right! They went straight for the Guinea Grass, one of THE worst weeds we get here in Hawaii. Awesome!! Itʻs working!
They were such a joy to watch. Munching away merrily on that horrible weed. It was like watching wild animals on my very on homestead, it felt surreal being here in Hawaii where you donʻt see many wild animals.
Then it started.
They went straight for my Ti plants (they LOVED these), then my sweet potato, then the banana keiki, the hibiscus, the pineapple!! Almost everything within reach of their mouths, they ate!
I was surprised. I thought thatʻs what goats were supposed to do, they were the ones that ate everything. Sheep just eat grass. But oh no! Besides the guinea grass, they barely touched the stuff.
My lawn is not a monoculture either. There seems to be at least a dozen or so different types of grasses growing together to make up my lawn. But they barely touched it.
In their defense, they did seem to like the spots in the grass that were along edges, like along the fence or at the base of a rock or tree trunk, which was pretty cool.
But the rest of the lawn, forget about it. Even after most of the “good” stuff was gone, they still didnʻt go for the grass.
That was surprising to me. If you are curious about what sheep actually DO eat, check out this post here.
So now, my food forest is the most weedfree I have ever seen it, but most of the understory plants that I actually wanted are gone too.
I didnʻt have to use the weedwhacker with the sheep around because of their tendency to eat at the base of things, but the lawnmower still came out.
How Sheep Can Be Raised In The Tropics Regeneratively
The sheep have since moved on. My place was too small for them. The plants could not regenerate quickly enough.
But how CAN sheep be raised in the tropics that is not only good for the sheep, but good for the ʻaina?
Thatʻs a question that came to my mind often while watching the sheep from day to day.
Because after watching them, I began to wonder…do sheep even like grass? Or do they just eat it because thatʻs what theyʻre given?
Perhaps a better system for both the sheep and the ʻaina would be a mixed species silvopasture system that can blend the benefits of all worlds.
By creating mixed plantings of fruit, nut, nitrogen fixing, and fodder species of trees and shrubs broken up by rows of pasture and controlled by fencing to rotate them, a system can be created that provides food for the sheep as well as humans and keeps the soil in place, lessen the impacts of erosion while drastically increasing the biodiversity of a traditional pasture.
With how much I saw sheep eat, I would say the holding capacity on a well designed plot with available forage opportunity would be 4-6 sheep per acre. Regular rotation would be a key management aspect of that plan, allowing plants to regenerate between rotations.
The Future Of Sheep In Hawaii
Sheep have a long history here in Hawaii, one that has shaped Hawaiiʻs landscape in profound ways. We can live in harmony with these animals in ways that help heal the land and provide food for its people.
It was a fun experiment raising sheep on my little homestead, but Iʻll stick to chickens. But if sheep are for you, consider yourself blessed.
Sheep are amazing animals, have such great personalities, and are a joy to have around the homestead.
How do you think sheep can be raised in Hawaii in a regenerative way?
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