YINCHUAN, Aug. 26 (Xinhua) -- Different from the past when Liu Zhiren wore lambskin clothing and cracked a herding whip in the mountains of northwest China's Loess Plateau, he now sits on the edge of his bed and leisurely watches TV.
"I herded sheep ever since I was a kid, just as my father and grandfather did," said Liu, a 53-year-old herdsman in Pengyang County in northwest China's Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
Pengyang was once a part of the most impoverished and inhospitable areas in China due to its dry climate, barren soil and harsh environment.
Growing up in Pengyang on the Loess Plateau, Liu has witnessed the tremendous changes in the mountains.
"I went out at 6 a.m. and returned home at 8 p.m. each day. I wandered around and had to hike 3-4 kilometers to find fresh grass for sheep," he said.
"With scarce plantations on the mountain, I used to get sunburnt in the summer and felt cold during winter. Due to the hardships, I don't want my son to make a living from herding sheep," he added.
Before 2003, the vegetation coverage ratio of degraded grasslands totaled 2.2 million hectares, accounting for 90 percent of the total, according to the regional government of Ningxia.
To protect the environment and restrain the degeneration of grassland, the local government launched a project to return grazing land to the grassland in May 2003.
Compared with barren soils and exhausted wells in the past, nowadays, the mountains are covered with green and dotted with farmers.
As a result of the project, Liu became the last herdsman there.
For him, it was not easy to bid farewell to sheep grazing. In the beginning, it was difficult for sheep to adapt to living in the sheepfold and barely ate anything. Things improved, however, when Liu started growing alfalfa and corn for the sheep to eat.
If not for the project, Liu Peng, 28, Liu Zhiren's son, would have taken his father's herding whip and lived a life just as his father did. Now, he is a cook in a restaurant in Yinchuan, capital of the region.
Liu Zhiren, says that after years of effort, trees and grasses reappeared on the barren land, and the water level of exhausted wells has risen.
In addition, 140,000 hectares of desertified land have been treated, and approximately 427,000 hectares of desertified grassland have been restored as of August 2018, according to local officials.
A variety of economic benefits are generated by ecological improvements. Liu has planted apricots and peach trees and ramped up efforts to raise silkie roosters and sheep, which brought him an annual income of 20,000 yuan (about 2,820 U.S. dollars) and helped his family shake off poverty by the end of 2015.
As the mountains turn green and trees get lush, the mountainous county receives more rain than before. Rainfall in Pengyang was less than 200 mm years ago, whereas, the figure rose to 500 mm in 2018.
The increased rainfall, however, is a bitter-sweet experience for him. "We live in a brick house that was built years ago, and the roof leaks on rainy days. I will make enough money to renovate the house," he said. Enditem