Those who walk or bike Cloverdale’s River Park will have new exercising companions over the next few weeks — around 300 sheep. Three flocks of sheep will be calling the park a temporary home, as they work to help diminish fire fuel and control invasive species.

“It’s their first time in Cloverdale River Park, at least in our management history of the property,” said Hattie Brown, natural resources manager with Sonoma County Regional Parks. “It’s really common in the west and increasingly throughout our regional parks.”

Sonoma County Regional Parks has contracted with local flock owners regularly over the past few years, sending sheep to the Laguna de Santa Rosa trail, Helen Putnam Regional Park and, most recently, Spring Lake, Foothill Regional Park and Gualala Point Regional Park.

The flocks being brought to Cloverdale are owned and managed by Stewards Point-based Falk Livestock and Land. In mid-May, they were up in Gualala working to help diminish fuel and restore land.

According to owner Leland Falk, he has multiple flocks of sheep — including one that stays year-round on property owned by the Sea Ranch Homeowners Association that have been grazing since 2002. All of the others are mobile, he said.

Falk Livestock and Land’s website states that the company owns 600 Katahdin sheep, but brings out 300 to 400 sheep for parcels 50 acres and more.

While neither Brown nor Falk had concrete dates for when the sheep would be in town — it can be difficult to predict how long it will take them to graze certain properties — both anticipated that they would get to Cloverdale in mid-June and be there for around two weeks.

On a steady rise locally, bringing animals to large open land to graze is viewed as a more natural way of tackling fire fuels reduction and helping with habitat restoration. Brown said that grazing can be particularly useful around fire season, when the operation of mechanical equipment around dry brush can potentially spark a fire.

“In general, grazing is also really beneficial because it’s a natural disturbance … it’s more intended to mimic what would have been a herd of elk or bison that might have historically moved through the county. It also benefits local agriculture,” Brown said.

If the sheep continue to graze River Park year after year, they can also begin to help restore the natural habitat of shrubs in the area.

“A lot of the landscape that we graze are annual grasses, so those are plants that come up year after year,” Brown said. “What we hope to do with our grazing in part over time, as we suppress those annual grasses, is that we sort of push the available brush to more (local) species.”

For the River Park project, however, restoring local species is primarily an added bonus.

“The goals specific to Cloverdale are more fuel reduction, so looking at reducing some of the understory and fire fuel. That can be the type of work that’s typically done with mowing or weed whacking,” Brown said.

Falk recently opened a home-base in Cloverdale, to make it easier for the business to cater to north county businesses or large-area property owners who are looking to have natural fuel reduction done on their property.

“Fire fuel management is one of the reasons I got into Cloverdale, to kind of use it as a landing pad,” Falk said. “You need a place you can work out of. The demands have gone up, and what I’ve found is there aren’t a lot of operators out there who do large-scale grazing like we do. The east side of Cloverdale really needs grazing.”

With fire season quickly approaching, and potentially already here, Falk said that he has experience bringing herds onto privately-owned land, where people may have large yards that have been blanketed with brush and other fire fuels.

He said that if someone is interested in looking into having sheep come graze their smaller parcel (around 20 acres), he recommends they try and band together with a group of neighbors, so they can take advantage of the flock while it’s already out, limiting transportation costs.

“The most efficient way to do this is to be able to link properties together, because moving in and out of jobs is the most expensive part of the operation,” Falk said. “If you have multiple land owners, and a couple neighbors link together and we look at the bigger picture of how fire moves through a landscape.”

Falk said that if one person grazes their property and the people three doors down graze, there’s still a risk of fire spread from the houses who haven’t addressed their brush.

Though the sheep will be making their way through the park for a few weeks, Brown said that it shouldn’t interrupt regular recreation.

“Frankly it can be kind of attractive to users, to be able to see the animals in the park. It’s really pretty common, I think. Most people are familiar with animal landscaping,” Brown said.

She did note that since sheep will be in the area, it’s even more important to keep dogs leashed while going through the park. Dogs are already required to be on-leash while in the park, but since dogs have natural herding and hunting instincts, having them off-leash in the area poses an increased risk.

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