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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

UC Davis sheep mowers highlight the interconnections between sustainability, practicality and aesthetics

Landscape architect’s recent sheep project explores the use of sheep in maintaining landscapes

Imagine if all lawn mowers on campus were replaced with grazing sheep who worked shifts to maintain our lawns. This idea is one that Haven Kiers, an assistant professor of landscape architecture in the Department of Human Ecology, is exploring through her project, which was piloted from May 5 to May 7, 2021. During this three-day initial trial, Kiers split the Solano field into two halves to compare one half—which was mowed conventionally—with the other, which was mowed by sheep. Kiers was inspired to begin this project after reading an article in The New York Times about sheep grazing lawns in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris

    “There was just something about that,” Kiers said. “It was just so romantic, the notion of the sheep and the maintenance and the Eiffel Tower, that it just stuck with me.”

    She initially thought of this idea while working at the Arboretum and took the opportunity to conduct this research project once she became a professor. Kiers emphasized that as a landscape architect, she does not want her landscapes to serve only aesthetic purposes, but also be used in a productive way to gather scientific data.

During her sheep experiment, Kiers measured grass length to see how successful the sheep were at mowing the grass and soil samples to see if the sheep added fertilizer while grazing and species biodiversity. 

Miles DaPrato, an environmental steward of the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden, explained that Kiers asked him to help identify what kinds of plants were in the areas where the sheep would be grazing. DaPrato said that with his background in restoration ecology, he supports the idea of sustainable management practices that Kiers is implementing. 

    “[The experiment is] trying to approach things a little bit more sustainably and see how we can just change the culture of what we do and how we do it, which is not easy,” DaPrato said.

    According to other studies conducted on the effects of sheep replacing traditional lawn mowers, this experiment has been shown to benefit landscape management. In a study done in 2016 at the University of Edinburgh, researchers found that net lawnscape management emissions were reduced by over 30% by switching to sheep grazing. Although, in addition to the ecological benefits of using sheep in lawnscape management, Kiers is also interested in how people will react to the sheep project as a whole. 

    “I’m really, really interested in this idea of the healing power of nature and the concept of Nature Rx,” Kiers said. “I want to see if bringing in sheep to campus and having people able to view them can actually help reduce stress and anxiety, […] much like when people are stressed, they go for a walk in the Arboretum.” 

    Kiers elaborated that the concept of Nature Rx, or having contact with nature even if it’s a view out of a window, can have a calming effect on people. Through the sheep project, she hopes that the sheep can become more integrated into the campus brand and become something that is engaging and that people want to be a part of. 

    “I do want this to be more of an exhibition and a kind of spectacle so it really becomes […] a destination to come watch the sheep,” Kiers said.

    Kiers also expressed excitement at the vast potential for collaboration across disciplines for this project. From doing a cause-effect analysis of sheep versus lawnmowers with a professor of public health economics to collaborating with the design department to develop a way to integrate the sheep into the university brand—such as by naming them the UC Davis Sheep Mowers—this project has opened a multitude of opportunities for multidisciplinary research. 

    “I really want my landscapes to highlight the value and the importance of designing for maintenance,” Kiers said. “That’s another reason to bring out the sheep or to create landscapes that show part of that landscape is the stewardship and the ongoing maintenance that’s required. So those three—practicality, science and aesthetics—all overlaid.”

Written by: Michelle Wong — science@theaggie.org

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