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Monday, March 4, 2024

The sheep mowers make their debut on UC Davis’ main campus this spring

Sheep, used as natural lawn mowers, return to campus in the hopes of lowering students’ stress and boosting morale

By MAYA SHYDLOWSKI — features@theaggie.org 

 

At 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 30, 25 freshly sheared sheep rushed the grassy mounds in between the Chemistry Annex and Bainer Hall on campus — where they will take on their next natural lawn mowing task.

Haven Kiers, an assistant professor of landscape architecture, is leading a project that studies how grazing sheep can improve a landscape ecosystem as well as the well-being of the humans that interact with that land and the sheep. The project, called “Sheepmowers,” has been in progress at the university for about a year, but this is the first time that the sheep are stationed on the main UC Davis campus. 

Last year, the sheep were located in a field between Old Davis road and Arboretum Drive, by the Environmental Horticulture building. They weren’t very easy to stumble upon, unless you happened to be walking by the somewhat remote part of campus. But on the morning of March 30, students lined up with their phones to take photos and videos of the sheep arriving at the pen that they will graze for three days in a row every three to four weeks until the end of spring quarter. Sidled up next to the Silo, the new location is visible for students coming out of class and visitors touring the main campus alike. 

Kiers is excited about the implications of being so centrally located, since the project aims to use sheep as mechanisms of a multifunctional landscape, which includes their effect on the people who see them.

“We want to understand how to create landscapes that do more than just look pretty,” Kiers said. “We’re interested in this concept of urban grazing because it reduces operational costs and hopefully improves sustainability. The part that we’re going to look at more this quarter is if the sheep help make people happier — if they help reduce stress and anxiety.”

The team invites students and other passersby to enjoy the presence of the sheep in lawn chairs set up around the sheep’s fence. The chairs are a part of a program by the campus planning and environmental stewardship department called “Chair Share,” which invites students to sit, relax and enjoy nature on campus. These chairs can also be found in locations around the arboretum. 

As the sheepmowing team began this project, they developed activities that would aid in the accomplishment of their goal to improve well-being and lower stress of community members. Last year, they hosted events like watercolor painting, knitting and felting with the sheep’s wool, that took place next to the sheep’s pen. This year, they hope to host similar events, which will be announced on their website and on Instagram

Lucy Yuan, a fourth-year landscape architecture major, is a student shepherd with the project and spends the grazing days at the sheep pen. She is in charge of keeping track of the number of people who visit the sheep and surveying people’s responses to the sheep. Her senior thesis focuses on the benefits of sheep in urban areas. 

I’m studying more the overall effects of bringing sheep into urban spaces,” Yuan said. “Right now, this is specifically on UC Davis’s campus, but what would it be like if you brought sheep onto other campuses or other public places?”

Included in her project is a guide detailing the process that the sheepmowing team went through to get the sheep on campus, their research goals, sheep management and the challenges that came with the project. Yuan is also focusing on explaining all the benefits of sheep in urban areas, including lawn mowing and the impact on humans. 

“I think sheep [seem] pretty easy to handle because they spook easily,” Yuan said. “Everyone seems to think that it’s super fun and easy at the end of the day to get them back into the trailer, but the black-faced sheep are especially gregarious. Matt Hayes, the sheep manager, knows which ones are the troublemakers who try to run away.”

The 25 sheep that graze the chemistry mounds are typically the same every day, with a few exceptions. Of the 25, most are black-faced breeds, though the project utilizes four different sheep breeds — dorset, hampshire, suffolk and southdown. All of these breeds are bred for their meat, as opposed to other sheep breeds that are raised for their wool. There’s even one completely black sheep, which is Yuan’s favorite of the flock because of his big personality. 

“He has a twin that’s a female,” Yuan said. “He was going to be sent off to auction for his meat, but he kept escaping. Every time [the sheep managers] tried to load him up, they thought he was the sister, and didn’t load him into the trailer to be sent off. He avoided it so many times that they decided to keep him here.”

Yuan is not the only student to enjoy spending time with the sheep. Jasmine Marquez is a fourth-year animal science major who has worked with campus sheep before. 

“I just love seeing them,” Marquez said. “It’s kind of cool that everyone’s just here together watching the sheep. The sheep facilities are outside the [main campus], so most people don’t really get to see them, but when they bring them here, you get to watch what they do.”

Abigail Segal is a third-year animal science major who has already been out to visit the sheep multiple times this week. When asked if she thinks the sheep have the potential to lower stress levels in students who interact with them, she said she definitely thought so.

“Oh, I think 100%, as long as you’re an animal person,” Segal said. “And they’re right on campus. Even though sheep don’t particularly like to be pet, it’s still fun to just watch them.”

Segal used to visit the sheep last year when they were located closer to the edge of campus, and she said she thinks the project is a great idea. 

“I think this is a really smart project,” Segal said. “I know in Orange County, they did this with goats. It’s cheap labor — you don’t have to pay for people to landscape and use machinery. You just have animals.” 

This is certainly not the first instance of using forage animals for urban grazing, as Segal described. Previously, sheep have been used in various public spaces in Paris to maintain grass growth in a more eco-friendly manner than traditional machinery. Since 2014, West Sacramento has utilized the help of goats to munch on excess vegetation for fire prevention. This year, they’ve brought in 400 goats. 

Using these forage animals not only reduces the fossil fuel energy required for grass and vegetation maintenance, but they also provide a source of organic fertilizer through their waste. Many vineyards and orchards use sheep and goats to graze cover crops that are grown between their vines and trees. Kiers mentioned that they can be used to graze between solar panels too because the small animals are able to walk beneath and around the narrow spaces. 

Kiers also noted that the wool from the sheep’s stomach, which is typically too low quality to be used in production, can be used as a soil amendment. The wool can be incorporated into soil as a way to increase water retention because of its ability to absorb liquids.

“We’ve definitely learned that we’re not going to replace lawn mowers, but this is something different,” Kiers said. “With all of the other factors that the sheep are contributing, there’s a lot of potential for many places.”

 

Written by: Maya Shydlowski — features@theaggie.org

 

 

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