Central Park, circa 1910. Detail of the Thaddeus Wilkerson photo postcard #53, ‘Sheep Fold, Central Park, New York’

Yes, sheep grazed the Sheep Meadow in Central Park until 1934, when Robert Moses (who else?) had them moved to Prospect Park and then to the Catskills. Sheep Meadow was part of the original plan for Central Park; although it was first used as a parade ground for military drills, it soon became a peaceful bucolic space. And I bet that lawn was healthy, green, and sustainable while the sheep were there to maintain it.

What is it about sheep? I’ve just finished reading The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, by James Rebanks. The author grew up in the English Lake District in a family of shepherds and wanted nothing more than to follow in his grandfather’s and father’s footsteps: raising good sheep, maintaining the family farm, and carrying on an ancient tradition. But he also, rather improbably, went to Oxford, and he advises UNESCO on sustainable tourism, traveling all over the world to examine traditional ways of life.

The book is an autobiography, but it’s also a detailed description of a place (one of the most gorgeous places on Earth) and a way of life that used to be common but that has nearly disappeared. Rebanks and his fellow shepherds practice traditional pastoral techniques: moving sheep throughout the seasons to use the land sustainable, raising breeds of sheep that are best adapted to a harsh environment, caring deeply for the animals and the land. He says that the yearly rhythms of the Lake District haven’t changed appreciably in 1000 years (and that the millions of tourists who visit the Lakes each year are completely oblivious to the traditional way of life that’s going on all around them). His appreciation for the flowery, fragrant, vitally important hay he makes to keep the sheep going all winter, and his despair when a wet harvest season destroys it, are equally memorable.

I learned that sheep are much smarter than I thought: older ewes know how to shelter from a snowstorm, for example, and will prevent younger, inexperienced ewes from choosing a more dangerous spot. I also learned that sheep dogs are just as smart as I thought, if not smarter, and that their work is absolutely essential, but that you can spoil a good dog with poor training. I learned that pastoralism is muddy, bloody, and often, to a city dweller, just plain gross, and that city folks who try it often can’t make it through the first (8-month-long) winter. The descriptions of the work involved in protecting the sheep during a snowstorm, or caring for them during lambing time, are unforgettable.

In case you’d like to see sheep on a daily basis, take a look at Google Sheep View, a site that uploads images including sheep from Google Street View every day. You’ll see some beautiful parts of the world. Here’s a “haunted ghost sheep” in Donegal, Ireland.

Haunted sheep ghost in Donegal, Ireland.It’s rare to see a sheep all by itself!Thanks to Adrian for the submission!


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