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Thistles

The Shepherd’s Thorn


By Laurie Ball-Gisch

The Lavender Fleece

3826 N. Eastman Rd.

Midland, MI 48642
www.lavenderfleece.com
lavenderfleece@charter.net


I am ready to admit that shepherding and running a farm is not always fun. There are some quite obnoxious jobs that we have to do. With any luck, we find an unsuspecting friend or family member, ply them with a free meal, and then invite them to take a pasture walk with us. My poor brother Mike was the latest victim and he joined us one Saturday evening, helping us to deal with the plant variety of farm pests—thistles.

Oh how I hate thistles!

As much as I hate to go out and fight with thistles, I hate even worse finding them in a fleece I am skirting. Or finding a sheep with a “cruels” abscess [see sheep! July/August 2004, page 54], which is the result of a thistle penetrating the skin and causing actinobacillus to enter their bloodstream. So, because the result of not dealing with thistles is worse than the actual eradication sessions, several days a year, we head out to the pastures with wheel barrows, shovels, long sleeves and “iron” gloves.

In doing an internet search on thistles, I found thistles often referred to as “noxious weeds”—and they truly are noxious, even obnoxious. In fact, if left unattended, thistles can become so invasive and so destructive that grazing and crop lands can be destroyed if thistles are not controlled.

This beautiful-flowered Scotch thistle, if left in the pasture, can trash high-dollar wool and hurt sheep too. Photo by Nathan Griffith.
This beautiful-flowered Scotch thistle, if left in the pasture, can trash high-dollar wool and hurt sheep too. Photo by Nathan Griffith.



Doing battle with thistles is tedious work, but must be done if flock products are to sell at a premium price.
Doing battle with thistles is tedious work, but must be done if flock products are to sell at a premium price.



Scotch thistle
Scotch thistle



Canada thistle
Canada thistle



Canada thistles are more invasive, filling the ground wherever they get a start. These young Canada thistle sprouts have already begun sending out their creeping rootstocks, which can extend to almost unbelievable distances.
Canada thistles are more invasive, filling the ground wherever they get a start. These young Canada thistle sprouts have already begun sending out their creeping rootstocks, which can extend to almost unbelievable distances.



Thorns and burr balls entangled in fleeces must be cut out, and even then, hidden barbs in a fleece will lose your high-paying wool buyers. Photo by Nathan Griffith.
Thorns and burr balls entangled in fleeces must be cut out, and even then, hidden barbs in a fleece will lose your high-paying wool buyers. Photo by Nathan Griffith.



The drudgery of thistle eradication lessens each year, if you'll just keep at it.
The drudgery of thistle eradication lessens each year, if you’ll just keep at it.


On our farm we have two types of thistles that we deal with: Scotch thistle and Canada thistle. The Scotch thistles have a thicker stalk and longer barbs. They tend to grow more “singly” than the Canada thistle. Their roots are thicker and can be extremely long. They do have a beautiful purple flower, and are sometimes sold as “ornamental” garden plants.

The Scotch thistle has an interesting history, and it is even the national emblem of Scotland. The Scotch thistle protected the castles from Viking invasion. As history has it, the barefooted Vikings were unable to traverse the thistle covered moats! But in spite of this romantic history and a most impressive role as castle guard, the Scotch thistle today is a weed that must be eradicated from farmlands and pastures.

Since Scotch thistles spread by seed, it is imperative to remove them from the pasture before the flowers go to seed. Because we have been working on ridding our pastures of Scotch thistle for eight years, we find now that usually one pass-through (which takes most of one morning) with wheelbarrow and shovel, is enough. We wait until we can see them above the grasses, where they look a bit like small Christmas trees. Then we head out and start digging down at their root and try to pull up as much of the root as we can.

Although there are herbicides available that are said to work on the smaller plants, on our farm, we do not use chemicals to fight weeds.

Although it looks much like the Scotch thistle, the Canada thistle is a “finer” plant, with thinner, multi-stalks and many more (yet smaller) purple flowers. They seem to thrive on the most marginal of soils, like unimproved pastures, and more overgrazed fields. The Canada thistle grows in clumps and has a massive underground root system that enables them to spread much more densely than does the Scotch thistle. Whereas the Scotch thistle spreads through seeds (hence, you must chop them out before the flowers go to seed), the Canada thistle is a creeping perennial that reproduces from both the root system and from seed. The root system can extend 15 feet or more and the vertical roots can grow six to 15 feet deep!

The Canada thistle is harder to get rid of than the Scotch thistle because of its very invasive growth habit. But because the thorns of the Canada thistle are smaller, we can usually pull them out fairly easily, as long as we have our armor on. I use “rose pruning” gloves and the guys use heavy leather gloves. In spite of the heavy gloves to protect our hands, invariably a thorn (thistle) does penetrate the glove and you’ll hear one or more of us yelp in pain from time to time.

During our latest thistle eradication evening, one of our sheep, one that is very curious, decided to “help” and began eating the thistles around us, while we were weeding! As much as I’d love to let her eat them (saving us work), it is not good for sheep to eat anything that can penetrate the skin of their face, lips or tongue, which can lead to actinobacillus infections and the resulting abscesses. Usually our sheep do not eat thistle plants, so a healthy pasture that has been grazed will reveal the thistles left standing, which makes them easier for us to see and to attack.

It is imperative that shepherds make sure their sheep are not in fields full of thistles or cockleburs. Although we don’t have cockleburs on our farm, they are another noxious weed that must be controlled if one is raising sheep for wool. The “stickiness” of the burrs is a nightmare when it catches onto the fleeces of sheep. Thorns and burrs must be cut out of wool, and when sorting through the wool, fleeces full of sharp barbs can be very painful to one’s fingers.

Wool processors do not look kindly on shepherds who send them fleeces with thorns, thistles, or burs in them. They can break apart in the machinery and send the thorns throughout the wool as it is being carded.

No spinner or knitter wants to handle wool roving or yarn that has thorns or thistles in it.

I found a website reference by Peter Weis that supported my observation that the Canada thistle seems to grow more abundantly in areas where the soil is the worst. The author wrote:

…”I had, altogether, about 2,500 feet of that thistle border. …I found that the thistles grew only in the turned-up subsoil, and simply did not grow in the rich topsoil next to it. The simplest and easiest solution then seemed to be, if my hypothesis was correct, a substantial and rapid increase of the quality and fertility of the poor subsoil. … It was clear that I also had to increase the organic content of this subsoil as rapidly and massively as I could.”—Bye Bye Canada Thistle at the website www.truehealth.org/acanthis.html.

The author went on to describe how he used the thistles themselves as mulch, cutting them, layering them with chicken manure, and letting them mulch. He would turn this under in the fall and spring, relayering with cut thistles. He reported that by the third season there were only a few thistles growing, and by the fourth season, none.

Mr. Weis went on to say:

“It is also just as obvious now that the steady loss of topsoil caused by modern farming methods, and the consequent plowing-up of more and more subsoil season after season, is an open invitation to the Canada thistle to come and do its job. And it does. And it does so with all the vigor, tenacity, might and sheer growing power it is endowed with.

This understanding now gives us a beautiful and highly productive method of getting rid of the Canada thistle. There are two ways. We can either rapidly and substantially raise the quality of problem soils with brought-in organic additives, which is a rather expensive project. Or, we can let the thistle itself do the job, as described above, and reap a profit in the bargain.”

For our own hillside that has the worst infestation of Canada thistle, we’ve decided to try overlaying about eight inches of old hay, topping it with horse manure, and another layer of used bedding straw. Hopefully we will see a reduction in future thistle populations.

In the meantime, we will be vigilant with our shovels and gloves making the best effort we can to get the thistles out before they go to seed. I doubt however that I’ll be able to talk Mike into another weeding session soon. Anybody out there want a free meal? ?





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