If you’re one of the lucky students at the University of California at Davis (UC Davis), then you may have met the sheepmowers. These are the university’s flock of domestic sheep that have been occupied as campus lawnmowers since 2021, when COVID-19 masking and social-distancing protocols were widely adopted, dramatically altering campus life. Besides keeping the lawns neatly trimmed, the sheep have proved to be a powerful mood boost for students, staff, faculty and visitors.
Sheepmowers boost campus morale
In addition to grazing on invasive weeds and keeping the grass short, the sheepmowers enrich the environment by depositing organic fertilizer at regular intervals on the landscapes where they graze. Sheepmowers also provide a lot of other environmental benefits, particularly reducing noise pollution and decreasing fossil fuel consumption by mechanical lawnmowers. But a recent study goes further than even those benefits: it reports that sheepmowers are providing some surprising and unexpected bonuses: they improve peoples’ mental health and well-being, and reduce student stress levels simply by … being.
“This started out as an experiment to test their mowing abilities, and we have now published research on how they make people feel peaceful,” said the lead author of the new study, landscape architect Haven Kiers, director of the sheepmowers project and an assistant professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at the University of California at Davis.
This research is significant and timely because it documents that a flock of grazing sheep alleviates student loneliness and stress and relieves the students’ mental and physical health struggles, which are accelerating.
“I can’t believe this is research; it’s so much fun”, Professor Kiers enthused.
Professor Kiers and her collaborators learned about the psychological effects of the sheepmowers by surveying roughly 200 students, staff, faculty and community members at UC Davis, asking them how they felt either as they walked past the sheep, or as they sat on chairs amongst the sheep whilst studying, knitting, sketching or painting watercolors.
“We found that there was a significantly lower likelihood of current feelings of being ‘very stressed’ or ‘stressed’ among the sheep mower group when compared to the group that did not experience sheep mowers”, Professor Kiers said in a statement. “The group with the sheep was just so much happier.”
The students agree.
“I loved seeing the sheep right before my chem midterm”, one student wrote on the research team’s Instagram survey. “It helped me distract myself and not stress right before taking the exam.”
“Just taking a break from a chaotic workday and mindlessly observing the flock has brought joy to so many people”, said Mina Bedogne, a research assistant on the project who is now in her fourth year of undergraduate work in environmental science and management, in a statement. “Some students find our grazing events so therapeutic that they’ll stay there for hours eating lunch, doing work and catching up with friends.”
The sheep provide the impetus to reduce loneliness amongst college students. This is a growing problem, thanks in part to COVID-19 lockdowns. For example, one recent survey conducted by the American College Health Association found that 67% of female students and 54% of male students felt ‘very lonely’ within the past 12 months (PDF).
“Loneliness is a struggle for many of our students”, agreed co-author Carolyn Dewa, chair of the Graduate Group in Public Health Sciences and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, in a statement. “One robust research finding is that social support is a protective factor for mental health. One of the ways the sheep mower events help to promote mental health is by providing an opportunity for a shared experience.”
“The events help people to see that they are a part of a larger group and give people a sense of community”, Professor Dewa said.
“I think this is a really smart project”, a student told The Aggie, the UC Davis newspaper, noting that the sheep are “cheap labor.”
Indeed, using sheep (or goats) to maintain landscapes and to promote fire prevention instead of hiring an army of people and traditional machinery is not a new concept. Already, vineyards and orchards rely on sheep and goats to graze or browse on the weeds that grow between cultivated vines or trees. These animals are increasingly finding grazing opportunities around solar panel arrays, alongside creeks and highways, in public greenspaces and on steep slopes.
Interestingly, so-called multifunctional landscape studies like this one previously only employed either dogs or horses.
“We really need to look at how we can get the most out of landscape management, in all forms — in the physical environment as well as mental health”, Professor Kiers pointed out. To do this, we must better understand how to work with a greater diversity animal helpers by appealing to their strengths.
Most of the UC Davis sheepmowers are female black-faced sheep breeds, either Hampshire or Suffolk, along with a few Southdown or Dorset individuals. All of these sheep breeds are bred for meat, rather than wool. There is even one all-black sheep in the flock.
At the end of March this year, the freshly shorn ewes will resume their landscaping duties between 0900 and 1600 and will continue this work for 6 months, concluding at the end of October. Daily, the sheepmowers are gathered into a trailer and trucked to the central part of the campus where they graze under the adoring eyes of their human fans. The area, located between the Chemistry Annex and Bainer Hall (Figures 1 & 2), is enclosed in a temporary electric fence surrounded on the outside by a snowfence.
After the sheep have finished their grazing duties for the summer, they winter in their barns elsewhere on campus, leaving Professor Kiers and her collaborators to continue their studies by measuring soil compaction and fertilization rates, plant biodiversity and grass length. These data are helping researchers and landscape managers identify how the sheepmowers benefit urban lawn landscapes as well as how they boost campus morale.
A. Haven Kiers, Kelly M. Nishimura and Carolyn S. Dewa (2023). Leveraging Campus Landscapes for Public Health: A Pilot Study to Understand the Psychological Effects of Urban Sheep Grazing on College Campuses, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health20(2):1280 | doi:10.3390/ijerph20021280