Next-gen lawn mower is a sheep: UMass Amherst

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Red Fox, near the athletics complex on campus.

One of the classic sounds of spring is the roar of a lawn mower. But, if the students of Britt Crow-Miller’s Environmental Education course, NRC 597 EE, have their say, the sound of lawn care at UMass Amherst could soon be “baaaaaaa!” That’s because Crow-Miller and her class teamed up with students from Lecturer Kelly Klingler’s Wildlife Conservation Courses (NRC 211 and 261) and the UMass Amherst Wildlife Camera Project, as well as students from art historian Margaret Vickery’s History of Sheep in Art. and Landscape to reinvent the landscape of UMass Amherst.

Called Sustainable EweMass, this remarkable collaboration with the Stockbridge School of Agriculture and Hadley Farm is testing the possibility of transferring some of the University’s lawn mowing duties to the UMass flock of sheep. The first test of the program took place on April 26 and 27 on the lawn 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 an associate professor of environmental conservation and geosciences at UMass, as well as director of the graduate program in sustainability science. “The way we manage our public landscape is a reflection of our community values. Do large, monoculture green lawns maintained by fossil fuel-powered machinery and petrochemical fertilizers accurately reflect our values ​​and aspirations as a university community? »

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

At the center of the project were the sheep themselves, and Crow-Miller spent months working with Hadley Farm Assistant Superintendent and Shepherd Alice Newth and her staff, as well as physical plant personnel. and facilities, to ensure that the sheep would be safe and the grounds well maintained. Additional support came from the Departments of Environmental Conservation, Geosciences, and History of Art and Architecture, and 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 herd of a dozen sheep, as they quickly cut the grass. “The sheep look happy,” Newth said. “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 much of what is today. today’s Iran from the 16th to the 18th century, to the sheep that once tended the lawns of New York’s Central Park.

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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 the study of cultural history, including the history of art and architecture, so interesting,” says Vickery, “is that it helps us show that ‘there is precedent for doing things differently. We know sheep lawn care works because it has worked so well in the past. Throughout history, societies have valued sheep for their many products and environmental benefits.The visual recording of these animals in art highlights their immense cultural and societal importance.

Ceballos, Boyle and Perry, who work with Vickery on the history of sheep in art and landscape, sat at one of twelve tables set around the sheep as they munched. Students in the Crow-Miller, Vickery, and Klingler classes had designed a series of activities that reinforced the takeaways that they wanted to leave with the UMass community. For example, Anaadi Pooran, MSc student in Sustainability Science and Senior Sophie Martin led a table on the importance of growing plants that can help maintain populations of native pollinators, such as bees. “A natural lawn can actually support our ecosystems,” Pooran said. “This can help 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 viewers through the concoction of “seed balls,” made up of compost and native wildflower seeds that could be used to help rejuvenate the manufacturer’s conventional lawn or garden.