2:50pm

Fri July 15, 2011
Environment

Sheep munch problem plants at Albany farm

At the Normanskill farm on the outskirts of Albany, about a dozen sheep are grazing on the hillside.

At first glance, the place looks overgrown and neglected. But it in fact, it's just the opposite.

This pastoral scene is a carefully monitored science experiment.

Unbelievable biology

Dr. Gary Kleppel, a professor of biology at SUNY Albany, is at the helm of this research project as its "head shepherd." Kleppel is studying a technique called targeted grazing, which uses domesticated animals to control invasive plants.

"One of the dogmas that existed for a long time was that grazing is a negative process [that] it hurts plants," says Kleppel. "But you know, plants and grazers have co-evolved for millions of years."

Kleppel says that with the right approach, his flock of sheep can have positive impacts on an ecosystem, like this farm.

"With 12 days of grazing, we're seeing 50 to 60 percent more species than we saw in an ungrazed landscape. To me, that's almost at the edge of believable biology," he says.

Grazing gains new ground

Here's how it works: the sheep are turned loose into a paddock that's overrun with an invasive species. They'll often start to eat that targeted plant, but if they don't, Kleppel draws them closer to it using light-weight, electrified fencing.

Targeted grazing has been practiced for years, both overseas and in the American West, where it's used to control plants and wildfires. But the technique is gaining new ground in the Northeast.

A school district in Pennsylvania recently trimmed $15,000 from its  landscaping budget by using sheep to trim the grass, when mechanical mowing around a new solar array proved too difficult to manage.

At the Normanskill farm, Kleppel's sheep are feasting on a thorny invasive called multiflora rose. But the hope is that they might soon be used to tackle another plant that's been menacing New York, called giant hogweed.

The hogweed's toxic leaves can span six feet, and cause blisters, scarring and even blindness to humans.  

But Kleppel's breed of black-faced sheep eat it for breakfast.

"The toxin is negated, it doesn't have any effect," he says. "But the plant has as much as 20 percent protein, which is better than the best feed I can possibly get."

Natural approach

This summer Kleppel's project is funded by New York's Department of Environmental Conservation. The state agency is hoping to find more natural ways to control invasive plants.

"One of the ways they do that suppression is with herbicides," Kleppel says. "But there's a real problem with a conservationist using herbicides. They just don't like that."

DEC staffers do like what they see here, as Kleppel and his students work to determine how targeted grazing might be used on state lands throughout New York .

One of those students is Caroline Girard. This is her third summer tending sheep as part of her doctoral research in biology.

"I think people are finally starting to understand that when you apply a chemical on a plant, it doesn't just stay on that plant," she says. "It doesn't just kill that plant. Once the plant dies, those chemicals go somewhere. ”

Girard points out that another advantage of the sheep that they're low maintenance. Tending them only takes a couple hours on a busy day.

It remains to be seen whether or not targeted grazing could be used on a wider scale. But Kleppel is confident the technique has merit.

"The best thing we can do is let animals be animals and plants be plants, and just be patient," he says. "Nature figured this out a long time before we did."