Connectivity of green and blue infrastructures: living veins for biodiverse and healthy cities

Urban pastoralism

Recently I saw some eco-sheep in Paris.

They were in a park, which had been fenced, and there was a sign saying they were “Ecomoutons” (eco-sheep) there to mow the lawn. What, you might ask, is so ecological about sheep?

Even ecologists tend to assume that cultivated plants and domesticated animals are not part of “Nature” and do not constitute biodiversity—unless you are specifically talking about agrobiodiversity, which is seen as a kind of specialist sub-issue that interacts with but is not part of nature. I have also noticed that agronomists who work on animal production see their animals as inefficient machines and know less about animal behaviour than your average cat owner. We should reject this idea that farm animals and crop plants are something other than animal and plant species. Urban pastoralism has the potential to be very relevant to urban biodiversity and green and blue infrastructure.

The particular sheep I saw had been installed by one of many companies that exist now in France to use sheep to maintain lawns. These companies set up fences, a shelter, a water source, and provide a shepherd who periodically checks the sheep’s health and moves them from site to site. The favoured sheep breed appears to be an ancient local breed from Ouessant, weighing only a dozen kilograms and just 40 cm high. These sheep are hardy, too small to erode or compact the soil, and easy to manipulate and transport. Their feces are “rabbit-sized” and not smelly or too visible. They are described as “ecological” because they keep lawns mowed without the use of fuel-using machines. People generally like to see the sheep—when I wandered by, several people besides me were already watching them. While such projects seem to have multiple benefits—monetary savings, low carbon emissions, charm—they are not really taking full advantage of how sheep might integrate themselves with urban green infrastructures and biodiversity.

In France and in Eastern Europe urban transhumance is increasingly visible. In Eastern Europe transhumance in and around cities has developed in the post-Communist context, linking areas of agricultural abandonment and urban wastelands. These sheep herds are used mainly to produce milk for market, and herds may consist of several hundred sheep. In France, by contrast, existing urban transhumance projects appear to be smaller, less market oriented, and more explicitly aimed at changing the urban experience for its own sake. The Urban Shepherds collective in the north of Paris, for example, explains in an interesting interview that the movement of the sheep between different areas is a powerful symbol of freedom, as well as a way of tracing and making visible the different kinds of floral and habitat diversity available in an urban/ peri-urban zone (https://www.enlargeyourparis.fr/societe/les-bergers-urbains-inventent-la-transhumance-en-ville, in French). Similarly, a transhumance of the Grand Paris region planned for early July is entirely symbolic (https://enlargeyourparis.fr/societe/la-transhumance-du-grand-paris-un-festival-itinerant-du-6-au-17-juillet), and aims not only to highlight the green corridors connecting parts of the peri-urban and urban zone, but also to bring agriculture back into the hearts of Paris and smaller surrounding cities.

According to the Urban Shepherds collective, there is a wide variety of plants for sheep to graze on within the urban green infrastructure. When the sheep enter a new pasture, they describe them as spending the first half hour hunting around for the plants they particularly want to eat—which can be a sign as to whether they are ill or short on particular nutrients. Though industrially produced livestock are often fed on monocrop fodder, as my anthropologist colleague Katie Overstreet has explained, this leads to high production efficiency at the cost to the cow of constant indigestion and nutrition-related ailments (https://aesengagement.wordpress.com/2019/03/05/a-plantation-inside-the-cow-capitalist-indigestions-and-the-rumen-microbial-universe/). To be healthy, livestock need to be able to eat a range of plants, with their range of nutrients and pharmacologically active biochemical components. A quick look at a book like “Herbs and Healing Plants of Britain and Europe” will impress you with the number of plants good for digestive complaints, respiratory ailments, high blood pressure, urinary infections, liver problems, kidney problems, and so on. These plants, growing in grasslands, hay meadows, wastelands, forest edges, and open woodlands of Europe, are found where grazing animals would always have been common in the past. Just as they have traditionally kept humans healthy, these plants would have kept livestock healthy. Transhumance routes connect the populations of such plants over long distances, maintaining plant biodiversity, and at the same time allowing livestock and humans to have access to healing plants as they need them. American rangeland researchers have also found that livestock that learn to incorporate bitter medicinal plants into their diets are more productive than those that only eat grasses.

The ecomoutons will not do well on an urban lawn of pure grass. This is probably one of the reasons that such services move their sheep around periodically. A possible benefit of this is that the circulation of sheep through urban spaces, whether by transhumance or via the trailers used by the sheep-lawn maintenance companies, could help introduce herb biodiversity into depauperate lawn spaces, through endo- and ectozoochory (transport of seeds via digestion, on wool and stuck into hooves), and could redistribute nutrients via feces and urine. This would be better for the sheep, better for soil fauna, herbivorous insects and pollinators, and better for the lizards, birds and bats that eat them. While many gardeners and even park visitors might expect certain lawns to lack “weeds”, when the lawn is short they are hardly visible. I also wonder whether spontaneous flowering plants in lawns might be becoming more acceptable even in the formal French gardens of Paris. The other day at the Jardin des Plantes I noticed that several of the lawns had not been mowed recently (they were being mowed at that very moment), and were covered in flowers. Having been allowed for some reason to grow to 15 or 20 cm in height, they looked very nice. I also noticed that the very formal Jardin de Luxembourg has installed some areas with sown wildflowers, which is certainly a change in aesthetic presumably due to the increasing interest in accommodating natural biodiversity in gardens.

Sustainable pastoralism is a complex issue. However, pastoralism as a mobile non-intensified form of livestock raising essentially responds to animals’ need and ability to compose a healthy diet and self-medicate, while responding to climate, weather, and plant phenology. Pastoralism is well-adapted to complex and changing habitats, and is often the only way to make a living in marginal habitats that are too inaccessible, too dry, etc., for crop production. In this sense, pastoralism as a form of productive agriculture should be a good fit for urban areas, which, with their concrete surfaces and ephemeral abandoned lots, resemble from an ecological perspective highly disturbed, early-succession marginal low-productivity areas. Urban transhumance can also act as an important vector of seeds and nutrients from rural to peri-urban to urban areas along green and blue infrastructures.

Bibliography:
Triboi, R. M. (2017). Urban Pastoralism as Environmental Tool for Sustainable Urbanism in Romania and Eastern Europe.„. Procedia Environmental Sciences, 1, 1-6.
Frascaroli, F., Bhagwat, S., & Diemer, M. (2014). Healing animals, feeding souls: Ethnobotanical values at sacred sites in Central Italy. Economic botany, 68(4), 438-451.
Podlech, D. 2016. Herbs and Healing Plants of Britain and Europe. Collins Nature Guides.
Provenza, F. D., & Balph, D. F. (1987). Diet learning by domestic ruminants: theory, evidence and practical implications. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 18(3-4), 211-232.
Provenza, F. D., Villalba, J. J., Haskell, J., MacAdam, J. W., Griggs, T. C., & Wiedmeier, R. D. (2007). The value to herbivores of plant physical and chemical diversity in time and space. Crop Science, 47(1), 382-398.

A couple of sheep lawn maintenance companies, with videos:
http://www.ecomouton.fr/
http://greensheep.fr/

--Meredith Root-Bernstein 15-06-2019