sheep in pen

The Next-Generation Lawnmower Is a Sheep

Researchers are re-imagining the UMass Amherst landscape and beyond.

June 2, 2022

One of the classic sounds of spring is the roar of a lawnmower. But, if the students in Britt Crow-Miller’s environmental education course, NRC 597 EE, have any say, the sound of lawn care at UMass Amherst may soon be “baaaaaaa!” That’s because Crow-Miller and her class have teamed up with students from both lecturer Kelly Klingler’s wildlife conservation courses (NRC 211 and 261) and the UMass Amherst Wildlife Camera project, as well as the students in art historian Margaret Vickery’s History of Sheep in Art and Landscape to reimagine the UMass Amherst landscape.

 

Called Sustainable EweMass, this remarkable collaboration with the Stockbridge School of Agriculture and Hadley Farm is testing out the possibility of transferring some of the University’s lawn-mowing duties to the UMass sheep flock. The first test run of the program occurred on April 26 and 27 on the patch of grass between the Isenberg School of Management and the Fine Arts Center. 

“What is the role of a land-grant university?” asks Crow-Miller, who is a senior lecturer in environmental conservation and geosciences at UMass, as well as director of the sustainability science graduate program. “The way we manage our public landscape is a reflection of our community values. Do big, monocultured green lawns, maintained by fossil-fuel burning machines and petrochemical fertilizers, accurately reflect our values and aspirations as a campus community?” 

Inspired by a program called Sheepmowers led by Haven Kiers at the University of California, Davis, Crow-Miller and her 26 students spent the entire spring semester brainstorming how to engage the campus community in a discussion on alternative methods of managing UMass lands to better support the University’s mission.  

At the center of the project stood the sheep themselves, and Crow-Miller spent months working with Alice Newth, assistant superintendent of the Hadley Farm and shepherd, and her staff, as well as with staff from the Physical Plant and Facilities, to ensure that the sheep would be safe and the grounds well-cared for. Additional support came from the Departments of Environmental Conservation, Geosciences and History of Art and Architecture, as well as the School of Environment and Sustainability. 

April 26 was wet and April 27 was windy, but that didn’t stop hundreds of UMass students from visiting the flock of about a dozen sheep, as they quickly trimmed the grass. “The sheep look happy,” said Newth. “Historically, this is how lawns were mowed.” 

Indeed, as Amelia Ceballos, Meredith Boyle and Andersson Perry point out, sheep have a very long cultural history, from their integral role in the art of the Safavid dynasty, which ruled over much of what is now Iran from the 16th to 18th centuries, to the sheep that once maintained New York City’s Central Park lawns.  

We know that having sheep maintain lawns works because it has worked so well in the past. Throughout history, societies valued sheep for their many products and environmental benefits. The visual record of these animals in art highlights their immense cultural and societal importance.” 

Ceballos, Boyle and Perry, who are working with Vickery on the history of sheep in art and landscape, were staffing one of a dozen tables set up around the sheep as they munched. The students in Crow-Miller, Vickery and Klingler’s classes had designed a series of activities that reinforced the take-home points they wanted to leave with the UMass community. For instance, Anaadi Pooran, a master’s student in sustainability science and senior Sophie Martin ran a table on the importance of growing plants that can help sustain populations of native pollinators, such as bees. “A natural lawn can actually support our ecosystems,” Pooran said. “It can help to fight climate change because native plants are better adapted to our environment and help support native insect populations threatened by climate change.” Martin then led onlookers in the concoction of “seed balls,” made up of compost and native wildflower seeds that could be used to help rewild the maker’s conventional lawn or garden. 

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THE NEXT-GENERATION LAWNMOWER IS A SHEEP

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