PENINSULA: Laura DeYoung doesn’t need a lawn mower to keep her grass cut. She has about 80 living grass-cutting machines roaming around behind her house.
DeYoung raises sheep as the owner of the Spicy Lamb Farm in Peninsula. She’s also a partner in Urban Shepherds, a coalition of three Ohio sheep farmers that’s promoting the use of sheep to cut grass by grazing instead of using humans and machines.
The group is in discussion with its first client, Cleveland’s St. Clair Superior Development Corp. If all goes as planned, Urban Shepherds will have sheep grazing later this month on green space near the lakefront east of downtown Cleveland.
The seed for Urban Shepherds was planted by Michael Fleming, the development corporation’s executive director. When he was working in his previous job with MidTown Cleveland Inc., he approached DeYoung with a simple question: Can sheep be used to mow vacant land in Cleveland?
The question intrigued DeYoung, who besides raising sheep is an environmental planning consultant focusing on green economic development. She researched the subject and concluded that leasing sheep to graze grass is cheaper, better for the environment and in some cases more effective than mowing.
Sheep grazing isn’t appropriate in every situation, and it’s not practical for many residential yards, DeYoung is quick to point out. But for vacant industrial sites, school grounds, land under power lines and other big stretches of grass that can be fenced, “I just think it’s a great win-win thing,” she said.
In addition to DeYoung, the Urban Shepherds are Aaron Lee Smith of Newark and Wayne Miller of Fredericksburg. They plan to lease — or in some cases, sell — flocks of sheep to clients, teach them how to care for the animals and provide fencing, supplies and education. For larger clients, Urban Shepherds would send a representative to the property weekly to provide services such as checking on the sheep and helping to move them to a new grazing area, DeYoung said.
Urban Shepherds won’t turn away residential clients, but its targets are landowners such as businesses or institutions that have at least five or 10 acres, she said. The number of sheep will depend on the size of the parcel, but DeYoung said a typical client with a large lot might lease 12 sheep.
Groups of homeowners could band together to lease sheep to graze their yards, but they’d need to realize that sheep will eat their flowers as well as their grass, she said.
DeYoung said small lots aren’t good for grazing, because they can’t grow enough grass to support the minimum of three sheep. Sheep are social animals, she and Smith explained, so they’re unhappy alone or in just a pair.
“This is not for somebody who wants to put them on a half-acre in their backyard,” she said.
Urban Shepherds’ lease program is seasonal, so clients won’t have to worry about housing, feeding and caring for the sheep over winter. The farmers will bring the sheep to the site at the beginning of the grass-growing season in March or April and remove them in September or October.
During the season, grass is all the food the sheep will need, DeYoung said. Their human caregivers will need to provide them with water and minerals; watch for signs of disease, predators or other problems; and perhaps move them periodically to a new grazing spot.
Urban Shepherds’ clients will need to check on the sheep daily, but the partners expect oversight to be minimal.
Sheep are surprisingly self-sufficient, Smith said. And as grass cutters, they’re fairly problem-free. “I’ve never had a tire go flat on one of my sheep, and I’ve never had one in the maintenance shop,” he said.
Urban Shepherds envisions the day-to-day care being provided by volunteer shepherds, whom the sheep farmers will train. They based the idea on the sheep “lookerers” used in Brighton, England, to look after sheep that graze on municipal land.
Clients wouldn’t be able to treat their grass with chemicals, but Miller isn’t concerned about the sheep grazing on grass that’s been treated in the past. Within a few weeks’ time, treated grass should be safe for grazing, he said.
For some herds, Urban Shepherds may provide a guard llama to fend off coyotes or unleashed dogs. Sheep don’t need shelters, DeYoung said, although sheds may be erected in some areas to fend off criticism from people who don’t understand that.
DeYoung and Smith believe the benefits of grazing are many.
For one, it’s cheaper than a large-scale mowing program, they said. Excluding the cost of fencing, DeYoung said, leasing sheep would be 50 to 80 percent cheaper than paying people to mow. Woven-wire fencing would cost up to $3 a linear foot, but it’s a one-time expense, she noted.
And the sheep could become walking, bleating billboards to raise money to offset that fencing cost, DeYoung said. She noted that in Holland, companies pay to put their logos on blankets worn by sheep in highly visible areas, and she thinks the idea could be adopted here.
“That’s fine as long as you don’t use Target,” she said with a laugh.
Besides the cost savings, grazing has significant environmental benefits, DeYoung said. It eliminates the need to burn fossil fuel and does away with the pollutants that mowers produce.
Grazing even helps clean the air through the process of carbon sequestration, she said. Grass removes carbon dioxide from the air through photosynthesis, she said, and grazing animals such as sheep return the carbon to the soil through their manure.
That manure does away with the need to apply additional fertilizer to grass. Urban Shepherds’ website says a sheep grazing for 200 days produces enough manure to supply 10 pounds of nitrogen and eight pounds of phosphate — about the amounts recommended for a spring treatment of an average lawn, it says.
What’s more, sheep can feed in areas that are hard to mow with machines, and they’re particularly good at keeping invasive plants at bay, DeYoung said. At the end of the season they provide wool or meat, although Miller said the sheep leased by Urban Shepherds will probably be ewes that are kept for breeding, not sent to slaughter.
Smith said he has encountered little resistance to the idea, except for some city officials who foresee complications, such as conflicts with existing service contracts and union agreements. Zoning laws might be a hurdle, but DeYoung said Urban Shepherds intends to create model zoning codes that allow cud-chewing animals and will work with its clients on zoning issues.
The sheep farmers realize theft and vandalism might be problems in urban settings, but DeYoung said they’ll adjust accordingly. Smith, however, doesn’t anticipate serious issues. “You know, the average person isn’t a crook,” he said.
What about all the manure the sheep produce?
Smith and DeYoung said it’s a minor inconvenience. Sheep manure takes the form of pellets, so it’s not as messy as cow or dog droppings and is incorporated into the soil by earthworms in about 10 days, DeYoung said. And because sheep eat grass, the odor isn’t offensive.
Besides, Smith and DeYoung think sheep are just plain entertaining.
They see Urban Shepherds’ sheep as providing educational and entertainment value along with their other benefits.
Most Americans are so far removed from the farm that they have little contact with farm animals, Smith said. By being exposed to grazing sheep, they get a clearer picture of where food comes from and a better appreciation for the need to care for the Earth that supports those animals, he said.
“They can realize [that] even though they live in town, they live on the Earth,” he said. “… It makes things click.”
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or email@example.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at marybeth.ohio.com.