Sheep may benefit urban lawns and people who graze sheep reduce stress, study suggests – ScienceDaily

Bikes whizz by, students rush to class, staff and faculty grab lunch or coffee along the way — and sheep graze the grassy hills in traffic, bleating every now and then. Grazing is their job.

The 25 woolly sheep who leave their barns at the University of California, Davis seasonally — for the past two years — to munch on lawns at various central campus locations do much more than mow, fertilize, and improve the ecosystem. The sheep also improve people’s mental health.

The sheep – four breeds from Suffolk, Hampshire, Southdown and Dorset – first took on that role in 2021 when COVID-19 masking and social distancing protocols were in full swing. The aim was to determine whether sheep could benefit urban lawns and to provide arguments for increased use. The program is growing and exploring additional benefits that sheep offer.

“This started as an experiment to test their mowing abilities, and we’ve now published research on how they make people feel peaceful,” said Haven Kiers, the lead author of a new study, director of the sheep mower project and assistant professor of landscape architecture the University of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

“I can’t believe this is research; it’s so much fun,” said Kiers.

Landscape management research includes mental health and nature therapy

The research has important relevance, especially at a time when, since the 1980s, students of all ages nationwide have expressed struggles with stress and their mental and physical health. Kiers, co-authors, and researchers surveyed about 200 students, staff, faculty, and community members about their experiences as they walked by, or even hung out in Adirondack chairs, studying, sketching, and painting watercolors among the sheep.

“We found that they were significantly less likely to currently feel ‘very stressed’ or ‘stressed’ in the sheep mower group compared to the group who had no sheep mower experience,” she said of the Study researching four sheep mowing events in spring 2022. “The group with the sheep were just so much happier,” Kiers said.

She said, as far as she knows, similar stress studies have only been done in dogs and horses, not sheep. “We really need to think about how to get the most out of landscape management in all forms – both physical environment and mental health.”

The paper, co-authored with Carolyn S. Dewa of the UC Davis Department of Public Health and Kelly M. Nishimura, a 2020 UC Davis graduate and urban planner in the Office of Campus Planning and Development, was published in January by The International Journal of Environmental Research and public health.

Therapeutic grazing events provide stress relief

Students and other passers-by participating in the experiment were interviewed by student staff and student shepherds in short chats near the sheep and on social media. Meanwhile, the sheep have access to plenty of clean water, are fenced in with a combination of electric and snow fencing, and are transported back and forth to their home pens in the morning and evening.

Researchers collected comments from observers and then aggregated the comments on topics including community engagement, place identity, relaxation, and reducing academic stress.

One student wrote on the Instagram feed used in the survey: “I loved seeing the sheep right before my chemistry sophomore; it helped me to take my mind off things and not stress right before the exam.”

Mina Bedogne, a research fellow on the project and now in her fourth year of college, said that distraction seems to make most people happy.

“Just taking a break from a chaotic day at work and mindlessly watching the herd has brought joy to so many people,” said Bedogne, an environmental sciences and management student. “Some students find our pasture events so therapeutic that they spend hours there lunching, working, and hanging out with friends.”

She said the sheep events help her too. “I also enjoy being able to forget about all my other tasks for a few hours and engage with all the passers-by in the welcoming and inclusive environment we have created.”

That’s a big part of the vision behind the program, said Dewa, who is also chair of the Graduate Group in Public Health Sciences and a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Dewa first met Kiers while researching the effects of Kiers’ Nature Rx course on wellbeing and they began a partnership that would develop into this latest research. (Nature Rx is a program at UC Davis and other universities that looks for ways to improve mental and physical health by looking at the external environment.)

Dewa also directs the Aggie Mental Health Ambassadors program, funded by the University of California Mental Health Equity funds, to educate the UC Davis community about mental health and mental health services and support. The program builds community and promotes mental health advancement. The ambassadors offer their help on site at sheep mowing events, lead arts and crafts projects. There, students can draw, paint and, in the future, card wool — all activities that keep people motivated and reduce the social isolation that can sometimes occur on college campuses, Dewa said.

“Loneliness is a struggle for many of our students,” Dewa said. “A robust finding of research is that social support is a protective factor in mental health. One of the ways the Sheep Mower events help promote mental health is by providing an opportunity for a shared experience.

“The events help people see that they are part of a larger group and give people a sense of community.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *