NEWS Sheep 2

The Next-generation Lawnmower is a Sheep

NEWS Red fox, near the track and field complex on campus
Red fox, near the track and field complex on campus.

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.  

NEWS Safavid art often featured goats and sheep. Credit: Sultan Muhammad, “The Feast of Sada,” ca. 1520
Safavid art often featured goats and sheep. 

“Part of what makes studying cultural history, including the history of art and architecture, so interesting,” says Vickery, “is that it helps show us that there is a precedent for doing things differently. 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. 

Over at the sensory table, which was stocked with pinecones, hemlock branches and a big bowl of dirt for running your hands through, Jordan Moran, a sustainability science master’s student, said, “there’s a great deal of research showing that even two hours-per-week of outside time significantly reduces stress. Every student I’ve talked to has mentioned they’d like more outdoor spaces to hang out.” Moran’s statement was borne out by the number of students sitting on blankets nearby, lounging in Adirondack chairs set up for the purpose or simply lolling on the lawn listening to the sheep “baa.” 

“Sustainable EweMass is a way for us all to think about the past, present and possible futures of our campus landscapes,” says Crow-Miller. “Since campus lands are public lands, they should serve the community, and that community includes students, staff and faculty, but also the town of Amherst and the birds, animals and insects who live here, too. The way we manage this land affects everyone. The sheep help us think about other possibilities and to start that conversation together.” 

If you missed the sheep, don’t worry—they’ll be back. There will be a summer event aimed at drawing in the wider Amherst community as well as another three-day demonstration in the fall.