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Forget the Lawnmower, Hire Sheep

Cities that have seen their populations dwindle over the years, like Detroit and Cleveland, find themselves faced with a problem: hundreds of vacant lots that require upkeep. Without maintenance, the land becomes overgrown. The lots turn into eyesores and bring down adjacent property values. But landscaping isn’t cheap.

Now one community is testing a new way to keep their vacant lots tidy: sheep.

The nonprofit group Urban Shepherds runs an urban grazing program on a four-acre lot in Cleveland’s St. Clair neighborhood.

I went by to check it out on a hot day when the sheep weren’t really feeling like talking -- a problem when you’re trying to produce a radio story. Trying to get close enough to hear a solid “baa” got me in trouble with their “guardian llama.”

Yep, there’s a llama in downtown Cleveland. He protects the sheep from urban predators like unruly dogs and people. Together, sheep and llama roam the fenced lot and keep the grass in check.

The lot sits amid an upscale apartment building, Lake Erie, and a major highway. The sheep spend their days chewing grass, clover, and weeds. They munch in the morning, munch in the evening, munch in the shade, and munch by the lake. It’s a pretty nice gig.

And it’s not a bad deal for the property manager, either, at least according to Michael Fleming, who spearheaded the effort to bring the sheep here. Fleming heads the St. Clair Superior Development Corporation and is a board member of Urban Shepherds.

He got the idea for “sheep lawnmowers” when he heard about it being done in Brazilian parks. He wanted to give it a shot in an urban area like Cleveland. The city, like others in the Rust Belt, has seen its population shrink and the number of overgrown vacant lots increase.

Groups like Urban Shepherds see sheep as the perfect caretakers for blighted areas. “We would like to form a sort of model that can be replicated in other cities. There’s no reason why this couldn’t be expanded far, far beyond Cleveland,” said Fleming.

This pilot project is meant to test the cost and feasibility of the program. While they can’t give a sheep versus lawnmower price comparison just yet, Urban Shepherds is confident the sheep will do the work for far less than traditional lawn care. “Our goal is to cut it by 50 percent,” says Development Coordinator Brendan Trewella.

The flock doesn’t require much care besides daily water and a mineral block. They winter at theSpicy Lamb Farm in Peninsula, Ohio.

Of course, Fleming knows this lot won’t be vacant forever -- a condo is in the works -- but the sheep are like a tide-me-over that’s good for neighborhood morale.

For instance, take “volunteer shepherd” Evan Zuzik, a resident of the nearby apartment building who checks on the sheep every day. He says the sheep are a tourist draw, as well as conversation starter. “People are generally like, wait -- there are sheep in downtown Cleveland?” said Zuzik. Apartment dwellers are eager to swap rooms for a “sheep view.”

But they’re more than a pretty face. The sheep offer environmental benefits, too. Ditching the gas-powered mower reduces carbon dioxide emissions and smog. The need for herbicides may be reduced as well, and some say sheep help repopulate native grasses.

“At the end of the year,” said Trewella, “instead of having a lawnmower that produces all this carbon pollution and grass clippings that will ultimately go into a landfill, we have a bunch of sheep that could go to market.”

Doug Clevenger, a sheep specialist at Ohio State University Extension, thinks the group is on to something. “Sheep are a way to utilize some of the grounds that we have that aren’t fit for other things,” he said. “They’re just a docile species that does an amazing job at taking a given amount of acres and turning it into more lamb and more wool.”

The use of sheep and other animal mowers(like goats) seems to be a growing trend. Flocks roam the grounds near O’Hare Airport in Chicago, in troubled neighborhoods of Indianapolis, and in vineyards out West. Even abroad, there are grazers on Parisian lawns, for instance, and in a British city.

In Ohio, “the largest sheep producing state east of the Mississippi,” there are plenty of animals to potentially chew on the state’s vacant urban lots, and shepherds ready to put them to work.

Check out more science of sustainability stories from QUEST Ohio.

anne.glausser@ideastream.org | 216-916-6129