News - October 9, 2009

Sheep cut the grass on campus

A flock of sheep is grazing on the Wageningen campus. Grazing happens to be more ecologically responsible and possibly more efficient than mowing.

Border collie Jack keeps a close watch on the flock of 324 sheep on the pasture between Technotron and the Restaurant of the Future
A flock of sheep has been grazing on the Wageningen campus since the beginning of this week. The animals are grazing on the grass at the Born under the watchful eye of shepherd Henry Hoiting and his dog. Hoiting feels that grazing has major ecological advantages. 'If you use a lawnmower you are basically grinding up all the insects and frogs. That doesn't happen if you use flocks of sheep. What is more, disposing of the cut grass or turning it into compost creates more CO 2 .'
On command
The sheep also improve the biodiversity. The shepherd can direct the sheep to graze and provide manure in certain areas, making the soil richer or poorer as required. It makes a big difference whether you let the sheep graze intensively or extensively. 'In this way you can even create strips of land for butterflies or amphibians', says Hoiting.
The flock at the Born consists of 324 sheep. Most of them are Veluwe heath sheep but there are also a few Schoonebeekers. You can recognize those by the dark marks on their heads and in their coats. They can sometimes be brown all over.
The shepherd's assistant is Jack, his short‑haired Border collie. On command Jack sends the entire flock in a given direction. Or he hurtles past the flock to bring back a sheep that has wandered off. At night the sheep are kept on the site using mobile fencing and Jack can take a break.
The flock will probably stay on campus for the next six weeks. Simon Vink, the spokesman for Wageningen UR, emphasizes that it is an experiment. 'We want to see whether we can manage the grass more efficiently and in a more ecologically friendly manner. I don't know whether this is cheaper but it's certainly no more expensive than mowing.'
Hoiting drew media attention two years ago when his sheep crossed the city of Groningen. His arrival in Wageningen has been low-key. University staff at the Born were surprised on Tuesday to suddenly see sheep grazing. Vink explains: 'This is a standard landscape management measure, plus it is still at the pilot stage. This is not something we want to score with in the media.'
Hoiting is pleased to be in Wageningen. After all, it was an Alterra study into the ecological benefits of flocks of sheep that led him to become a shepherd six years ago. Research is still being done into the effects of flocks of sheep. For example, a Forestry and Nature Management student at Van Hall Larenstein is studying the effects they have on vegetation. 'Perhaps there are students here in Wageningen too who could do some research', Hoiting says hopefully.