Animals and fruit trees are a natural partnership – after all, they evolved together, so it makes sense they work well together, as we’ve spoken about in other blogs.
But it has to be done right, as there are risks of having large animals like sheep under fruit trees.
One of our organic orchard buddies Phil Marriott runs Shropshire sheep under his lemon trees, and points out that they routinely eat the bottom metre or so of foliage from the trees (as you can see from the photo below).
They can also be naughty and try to climb the trees to reach more of the foliage, or try to push through fences into areas they’re not supposed to be.
Over the years, Phil has developed his ‘dream team’ by immediately excluding anyone that shows a propensity to do the wrong thing, because it only takes a couple of days for a new and unwelcome behaviour to spread through the whole flock.
One of the major downside of animals is the bother of having to use and manage electric netting fences, a common management tool used for shifting animals as diverse as sheep, cows, pigs and chickens around the orchard.
The most common complaints include the fence getting tangled in long grass and trees, shorting out and becoming ineffective, and needing regular moving and maintenance.
Many growers are moving instead to permanent netting systems to divide their orchards into small manageable blocks to shift animals through – but that’s a much more capital-intensive solution, which puts it out of reach for some people.
And of course animals take much more constant care than trees. You’ve got to take care of things like shelter, water and protection from predators, and pay constant attention to their welfare.
Despite the drawbacks, there is widespread agreement that the benefits of combining fruit trees with animals definitely outweigh the costs, which is why it’s one of the key strategies in our Permaculture in Action short course.
For many backyard fruit growers, chickens are the easy place to start, and they are a great fit with fruit trees.
The ideal situation is to be able to confine them around your trees for a short period, a few times a year, especially in spring and autumn. That way they’ll be providing the maximum benefit cleaning up pests as these 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, which is why it’s great to have another option for where you keep them the rest of the time.