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Do you have animals around your fruit trees? If not, would you like to?

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Animals and fruit trees are a natural partnership. After all, they evolved together, so it makes sense they work well together.

We’d never grazed animals in the orchard before (apart from the ones we don’t want, like kangaroos, rabbits, and hares). That changed when Tess Sellar joined us here at the farm and brought her lovely dairy cows.

Sellar Farmhouse Creamery cows grazing in the orchard
Sellar Farmhouse Creamery cows grazing in the orchard

Tess has been experimenting with grazing the cows in various orchards for a few years now. She works closely with the orchard lessees (most recently the Orchard Keepers and before them Ant) to work out a schedule.

In winter when there are no leaves on the tree it’s wildly successful.

The cows make good use of the feed, which saves the orchard lessees from having to mow. They leave behind lots of fertiliser, and only cause minimal damage to the trees.

However in summer when the trees have leaves it’s a different story. It turns out that cows absolutely LOVE fruit tree leaves (as you can see in the photo at the top of this blog).

So, how do you get the benefits without getting the damage?

Cowpats in the orchard providing natural fertiliser
Cowpats in the orchard providing natural fertiliser

Learning how to mix animals with fruit trees

Fruit trees and grazing animals are a natural mix. In fact, there is a long tradition of farming them together. However, it’s a very uncommon practice in modern orchards. It’s hard to find modern orchardists with any experience of actually doing it.

We’ve been glad to be part of the ANOO network (the Australian Network of Organic Orchardists) and to learn from the experience of other small-scale organic orchardists. Then we can bring that experience to you, to try out in your backyards or small farm.

Within the ANOO network, there are growers using sheep, cows, pigs, chickens, and geese in their orchards. It’s frequently been a hot topic of conversation at the annual conference.

Here are a couple of things we’ve learned from them.

Sheep and fruit trees

Phil Marriot has been grazing Shropshire sheep in his organic cherry and lemon orchards. Phil finds that using the Shroppies to control the weeds under his trees brings great benefits:

  • They keep the grass short, thereby helping to put more carbon into the soil,
  • Provide free nutrition for the trees, delivered exactly where it’s needed,
  • Help to control pests and diseases by cleaning up waste fruit from the ground, and
  • Convert ‘waste’ organic matter (grass and fruit) into useful products like meat and wool.

Sheep grazing in a cherry orchard
Shropshire sheep grazing in a cherry orchard
Photo: Phil Marriot

While generally happy with the benefits, Phil warns of the downside. Large animals routinely eat the bottom metre or so of the foliage from both his cherry and lemon trees (as you can in the photos above and below).

This means the fruit buds are being munched as well. Over a whole orchard, this represents a lot of prime real estate on the trees that’s wasted because it’s no longer growing any fruit.

Phil's lemon trees with the lower canopy pruned by sheep
Phil’s lemon trees with the lower canopy pruned by sheep

Phil has also spent a few years building up his ‘dream team’. This is a herd of quiet, well-behaved animals that are allowed in the orchard. Naughty animals are immediately banished before they can spread their bad habits to their buddies.

In Phil’s experience, it only takes a couple of days for a new and unwelcome behaviour to spread through the whole flock.

This might include eating bark, trying to climb the trees to reach more of the foliage, or pushing through fences into areas they’re not supposed to be. Or, all three!

Sheep in a Tasmanian orchard

Matthew Tack and his wife Coreen from Our Mates Farm in Tassie are also big fans of using animals with fruit trees. They run Wiltshire Horn sheep under their apple trees.

They warn of the dangers of letting the animals run short on minerals. The sheep were left in an area that they thought would have been big enough to feed them for 2 weeks. Unfortunately, Matthew and Coreen returned from a trip away from the farm to find this damage (below).

Sheep damage to an apple tree trunk. Photo: Matthew Tac
Sheep damage to an apple tree trunk.
Photo: Matthew Tack

According to Matthew, “It goes to show how important minerals are! These trees fortunately are well established and should recover. Most of this damage is from young wethers.”

How to prevent damage to your trees

Building a flock of compliant animals who behave themselves is definitely one way to minimise damage to your trees. However, it’s quite intensive, so a more common technique is to manage the animals’ behaviour and range with electric fences.

Electric fences can be used to manage animals as diverse as sheep, cows, pigs, and chickens around your fruit trees. Of course, electric fences also have their downside. (Honestly, when is anything to do with animals ever simple?)

One of the most common complaints is the fence getting tangled in long grass and trees. This causes it to, short out which makes it ineffective. Electric fences also need to be moved regularly, and ongoing maintenance.

On a farm scale, many growers are shifting instead to permanent netting systems to divide their orchards and farms into small manageable blocks.

However, that’s a much more capital-intensive solution. Unfortunately, that puts it out of reach for most gardeners or people with smaller lifestyle blocks.

Other ways to prevent damage to your trees include:

  1. Having the right number of animals. The more animals you have, the more pressure on the system, and the more likely they are to eat things you don’t want them to eat.
  2. Having the right mix of animals (e.g. one sheep, two ducks, and 4 chickens). This will be different for everyone and will depend on your garden, your fruit trees, and which animals you like.
  3. Ensuring there’s always enough feed, and enough minerals, available for the animals.
  4. Getting the timing right. As we learned with Tess’s cows in our orchard, it works better at some times of the year than others.

Choosing the right animals for your situation

Despite the drawbacks, the benefits of combining fruit trees with animals definitely outweigh the costs.

Overall, the health of any farm or garden is usually going to improve when you introduce animals to the system. As an added bonus, caring for and spending time with animals is fabulously good for your mental health.

But of course, animals take much more constant care than trees. You’ve got to pay attention to shelter, water, and protection from predators, and be always alert to their health and welfare.

If you’re interested in having animals around your fruit trees, make sure you understand the pros and cons of each animal type before you commit.

Chickens and fruit trees

For many backyard fruit growers, chickens are an easy place to start, and they are a great fit with fruit trees. They can be brilliant in helping to improve your soil.

The ideal situation is to be able to confine them around your trees for a short period, a few times a year. The best times of the year are in spring and autumn. That way the chickens will provide the maximum benefits of cleaning up pests as they emerge from the soil in spring, and again as they are preparing to overwinter in autumn.

However, on young trees, chooks can give the tree roots a pretty hard time if you leave them in there for too long. For that reason, it’s great to have another option for where you keep them the rest of the time.

Mature trees will also benefit from not having chickens around them the entire time. The trees fare much better from having a diverse floral understorey growing under them (lots of flowers, herbs, and even vegetables). Unfortunately, they are NOT compatible with chickens!

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