Why you should care

Because this unconventional method could curb carbon emissions while keeping up otherwise neglected land.  

If you know about the banlieue, the suburbs of Paris, then you know they’re nothing like what Americans call suburbs. Instead of cute cookie-cutter houses, think bleak housing projects. And Saint-Denis, north of Paris, has some of the worst in all of France. But that’s not all it’s got. This utterly non-Parisian bastion of tenement housing, crime and poverty also has — as wacky as it sounds — a band of locals who walk sheep. Old MacDonald had a … housing project? E-I-E-I-OMG.

Every week, they march dozens of sheep from their flock of 80 up and down the town to graze on its grass. “They’re really sheep of the city,” says 27-year-old Simone Schriek, one of the five co-founders behind Les Bergers Urbains, or the Urban Shepherds, a collective of land and agricultural specialists.

This is hardly a lone-sheep scenario. More city councils around the world are signing up urban shepherds in what’s become a win-win situation: Bleaters eat for free, saving heaps in food costs, while parks and conservation spots get fresh cuts on the cheap. In the U.K., the Brighton and Hove City Council deploys flocks of sheep to improve green spaces, while in Flanders, Belgium, woolly wonders maintain land near a former military airfield. Increasingly, U.S states are doing the same, including California, which has around 1,000 sheep spread across about half of the East Bay District’s 65 parks, in Oakland. Meanwhile, Canadian provinces such as Alberta, Saskatchewan and Quebec have talked about or unleashed their own sheep-powered trimmers.

It’s a sign of the times: Cities are being stretched to find new and popular solutions to rising costs. While gas prices have fallen of late, mowing costs can still top $1,800 using an 18-horsepower lawn tractor on about two acres of land. That compares to roughly $130 on the same plot of land with three to five sheep per acre, according to data from Urban Shepherds, a Cleveland-based nonprofit. Cities, under public pressure, are also looking for more eco-friendly alternatives, and though sheep come with their own emissions (great fertilizer, naturally), they’re not nearly as nasty as the carbon-polluting, gas-powered lawn equipment that contributes about 5 percent of the air pollution in cities, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Moreover, people spill over 17 million gallons of fuel annually while refilling that equipment — more than the Exxon Valdez spill in the Gulf of Alaska.

Just because we’re … in the postindustrial age doesn’t mean we’ll have a drone managing our uplands. Animals will manage it.

Severine von Tscharner Fleming of Greenhorns, an advocacy group for young farmers

Not everyone needs this much convincing, of course. During World War I, President Woodrow Wilson had sheep graze on his White House lawn in a show of support for troops overseas and to save on much-needed manpower, according to the White House Historical Association. Meanwhile, the Canadian city of Fort Saskatchewan has used Finnsheep to trim its parks for more than two decades now — a tactic that started out as turf control, its council site says, and ended up as “a major tourism attraction.”

But some experts say the biggest potential for urban sheep grazing remains to be tapped. After all, there’s some 635 million acres of federal land available across the U.S. — some of which faces billions of dollars in critical deferred maintenance projects. The National Park Service alone has a backlog of $11.5 billion in deferred maintenance projects. What makes sheep especially appealing is they can be trained to eat particularly noxious weeds and are known to do a better job at grazing than unruly cattle or goats, known as “escape artists” by some. “Just because we’re living in the postindustrial age doesn’t mean we’ll have a drone managing our uplands. Animals will manage it,” says Severine von Tscharner Fleming, who runs Greenhorns, a nonprofit organization made up of young farmers.

While all of this has made urban shepherding a popular choice among young, idealistic farmers, it’s also meant more sheep facing problems with, say, off-leash dogs and parasites. “People have these romantic ideas about raising sheep in the city, but they don’t manage them well and they die,” says Laura DeYoung, an environmental planner turned shepherd who co-founded Urban Shepherds in 2011. Her group already uses its sheep to mow vacant land in Cleveland, where the city spends $3.3 million a year on trimming empty lots. But, like other shepherds, she has run into red tape over zoning rules and logistical challenges with getting flocks of sheep into cities, including Detroit, where DeYoung hopes to start a similar program.

Still, if a shepherdess can herd her flock, she can sometimes do better than with a machine. Crown Point, for one, is a historical site that sits on a bedrock on Lake Champlain’s west shore, so “you can’t just go up with a lawn mower,” says Casey Holzworth, who’s charged with looking after more than 50 parks and historic sites throughout New York state. He’s hoping sheep — about 40 of them, to start — will squeeze into those tough-to-reach spots. If so, it might just be enough to convince government officials that a similar program could roll out throughout the state, including at Thacher, Saratoga Spa and Grafton Lakes state parks.

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