Make America Graze Again

Apr 22, 2019 by

The New York Times

Nashville’s Zach Richardson uses sustainable practices — and a flock of sheep — to clear overgrown landscapes.

Margaret Renkl

By Margaret Renkl

Contributing Opinion Writer

Ewe lambs grazing. Credit William DeShazer for The New York Times

NASHVILLE — Just past the intersection of Highway 70 and Old Hickory Boulevard, in the Bellevue section of Nashville, stands a tiny patch of native wilderness. Four acres of pristine woodland tucked behind a condominium complex, the Belle Forest Cave Arboretum is a stone’s throw from restaurants, shops and big-box stores. I’ve passed it probably a hundred times over the years with no idea it was there.

Last week, on a drizzly spring afternoon, I found it. The pocket park provides the perfect habitat for a huge range of plant and animal life: In addition to the usual songbirds, mammals, turtles, and wildflowers that can make a home of even the tiniest wooded opportunity, Belle Forest boasts salamanders and tri-colored bats and at least 39 species of trees.

It is also home to a wide range of invasive plants: bush honeysuckle and Chinese privet and a host of others that pose a serious threat to native plants and the wildlife that depends on them. But clearing this densely woven environment of unwanted vegetation, especially without harming native plants, is a challenge: herbicides would poison the creeks, and heavy machinery would dislodge the trees and compact the soil — if machinery could make it up the steep terrain at all.

That’s where Zach Richardson comes in. Mr. Richardson, 30, is a Nashville native who holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of Georgia. He also owns a flock of sheep that he deploys all over the city to manage invasive vegetation in a safe, ecologically sensitive and cost-effective way. The Nashville Chew Crew, as he calls his flock, will eat even the most noxious invasive plants: kudzu, mimosa, English ivy, euonymus, Bradford pear, you name it.

Urban shepherd Zach Richardson. Credit William DeShazer for The New York Times

Mr. Richardson is a passionate and articulate advocate for this ancient method of land management, not just in fragile areas like the Belle Forest Cave Arboretum, but also in public parks and greenways, vacant city lots and suburban backyards. His sheep, he says, “are easy on the land,” leaving the topography undisturbed and the soil enriched. (“They fertilize as they go,” he points out.)

They’re also adorable. A day-old lamb leaping behind its mama in the mild, dappled light of springtime is about as close to beatific as anything you will see in this life.

Twin lambs feed from their mother. Credit William DeShazer for The New York Times

That cuteness factor, while providing no direct environmental benefit, offers a big social payoff. Sheep are the very emblems of peace. If we’re worried, as the old saw goes, counting imagined sheep will settle our minds enough to sleep. A flock of sheep grazing along a public greenway can be a way of reminding an agitated urban population of its rural roots, or at least of the reassuring storybooks of childhood.

Mr. Richardson’s sheep don’t look exactly like the fluffy ruminants of storybooks, however. They have hair, not wool, and they shed their coats in warm weather, so they don’t need to be sheared. They are, in other words, ideally suited for the heat and humidity of the American South, and for grazing among the dense vegetation of an overgrown urban landscape. When the Chew Crew is hired to clear out a site, Mr. Richardson installs temporary fencing, both to protect the sheep from predators and to protect beneficial vegetation from the sheep, and then he delivers an appropriate-sized flock for the site. The sheep do the rest.

Urban shepherds must be alert for dangers to the flock.CreditWilliam DeShazer for The New York Times

Well, not quite all the rest. Urban shepherds, like the shepherds of old, must be alert for dangers to the flock: illness, injury, parasites, difficult deliveries. One recent morning Mr. Richardson arrived at Bell’s Bend Park, where his pregnant ewes were pastured during lambing season, and found a newborn lamb outside the fence. He picked it up and carried it to each newly delivered ewe in turn, but they all rejected it.

Then he noticed a big ewe in labor: “The lamb was already dead, but it was stuck,” he says. “I had to go back to the truck, put the little lost lamb down, get gloves and lubricant and go back to pull the stillborn lamb out. Then I went back to the truck, got the little lost one, rubbed it with the afterbirth and placenta, and nudged it up to the ewe. She looked down at the baby and smelled it, and smelled her own scent, and took it immediately. For a shepherd….” He paused. “It was magical.”

So how does a city boy like Zach Richardson become a shepherd? It began as a lark in college, when he and his roommates bought some goats to clear their backyard. “They ate everything and turned it from a jungle to a putting green,” he says. “It was a huge hit. Everyone wanted to come and sit on our porch.” To a student of sustainable landscape architecture, it seemed almost like cheating: the goats had cleared the landscape, improved the ecology and enriched the human community — and all without chemicals or fuel-guzzling machinery.

Duggie is a highly trained sheep-herding dog.CreditWilliam DeShazer for The New York Times
Mr. Richardson’s sheep don’t look exactly like the fluffy ruminants of storybooks. Credit William DeShazer for The New York Times

Mr. Richardson, whose company T-shirt reads, “Make America Graze Again!” runs the Nashville Chew Crew with the help of one human employee and several canine colleagues. Guard dogs Reba, Sturgill, Dolly and Dwight are Anatolian shepherds who were born in the company of sheep and who treat the sheep as packmates, living with them day and night, in all seasons and in all weather, to protect them from predators.

Duggie, a Border collie, is a highly trained sheepherding dog whom Mr. Richardson calls his best friend. After finishing his master’s degree in 2014, Mr. Richardson went to work for Brian Cash, an urban shepherd in Atlanta who trains sheepdogs in addition to running a flock of sheep for sustainable vegetation management. “He’s a world-class handler, breeder and trainer, and I soaked up as much knowledge as I could from him,” Mr. Richardson says. “I traded my first paycheck for Duggie.” It’s Duggie’s job to round up the sheep and herd them safely onto the trailer by following commands from Mr. Richardson.

Zach lowering the fence for Duggie, so he can get to work herding. Credit William DeShazer for The New York Times

The Nashville Chew Crew is part of a growing “targeted grazing” movement in the U.S.Great Britaincontinental Europe and Canada. This is particularly true in fire-prone areas in the Western United States. When ruminants like sheep and goats remove the understory while it’s still green, before it can dry out and turn into tinder, they create an effective firebreak.

Here in Nashville, Mr. Richardson’s flock can most often be found working the vegetation surrounding the city’s public greenways, where they have a near-constant audience: walkers and bikers and businesspeople, even boaters on the Cumberland River, all entranced by the sight of sheep doing what sheep have done for centuries. “Part of why my business is so successful is that we have gotten totally detached from agriculture — babies being born, animals dying, sheep eating foliage,” Mr. Richardson says. “People should be seeing this — they should see a dog work; they should see a shepherd who cares about his animals. When I show up with a hundred sheep and some dogs, their eyes light up.”

A flock of sheep working a city riverbank can inspire urban dwellers. Credit William DeShazer for The New York Times

That interest, he believes, can become the catalyst for a greater concern for the environment itself. Even urban landscapes are teeming with wildlife, but most people are too busy to notice. A flock of sheep working a city riverbank can shift their field of vision, expand their gaze. “When you put sheep into an urban landscape, it can be just enough of a spark to get people outside to see something that takes their interest further,” Mr. Richardson says. “I see that everywhere we go.”

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Margaret Renkl is a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South.  She is the author of the forthcoming book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.” @MargaretRenkl

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