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Calgary brings in sheep for a fescue rescue

Park-goers at the popular Weaselhead Flats Park may notice they are currently sharing the space with about 100 woolly new inhabitants.

In a small designated patch to the west of the 37 Street SW parking lot, one can see a plot of land occupied by about 100 sheep and a trailer overlooking the site where a shepherd, his guard dog, and two sheep-herding border collies, reside.

Yes. In the bitter cold.

These sheep are hard at work, filling their bellies with a target pest vegetation known as fescue.

Fescue grows in grassy tufts, and it naturally spaces itself out to adapt to dry temperatures. As old tufts build up in the soil, they can choke other important types of vegetation out of the region. Originally, bison would graze and regulate this fescue, but we are now tasked to find alternative ways to manage the pest vegetation and ensure healthy flora can grow in the area.

City approved alternative land management in 2016

Calgary city council approved an amendment to the Parks and Pathways bylaw in 2016. This amendment allows for alternative land management systems to manage vegetation within City lands.

The shepherd and his dogs. HEIDI EXNER / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Targeted grazing has been successful in other municipalities, and sheep are likely to eat grass-like vegetation, so they are great at the job. Sheep are well equipped for winter weather conditions. They have natural wooly sweaters, and they are happy to have their dinners cold.

Calgarians may be more familiar with the annual goat pilgrimage to city spaces as they tackle some of the ongoing summer weed problems.

Chris Manderson, Urban Conservation Lead at the City of Calgary, said this alternative land management practice is an all-around win.

“I think it gives people an opportunity to connect with the landscape in a way they haven’t before,” he said.

“And it also allows us to think about more sustainable landscapes.”

Restoring the natural process a long game

In 2015, the City committed to naturalizing 20 per cent of Calgary’s open spaces by 2025. Faced with current budget cuts and pressures to reduce spending, Manderson said this could have a positive long-term impact.

“There’s an argument to be made that there’s an investment now, but in the long-term we have healthier self-sustaining systems that are fed by natural processes. I think that’s the way to go. I think it gets us off of the reliance of chemical controls,” he said.

“My role is thinking about the ecosystems and protecting and restoring nature in the city, and what we see as really important is not just ‘protecting the nature’ – not just putting a fence around it and saying we have done our job. It’s thinking about the processes and supporting them.”

So, park-goers expect to see a “fleece Navidad” at Weaselhead Flats only until Dec. 10

The members of this happy herd are scheduled to complete their targeted grazing and will then return to their home at the Creekside Goat Company in Magrath, Alta.