Image from animalspapper.com
When Brighton council advertised for volunteer shepherds they never imagined that they would get hundreds of applicants. It's not the greatest job description: no pay, lots of walking on quite steep, uneven slopes, duty in all kinds of weather including the winter and checking fences.
But the idea struck a chord and now the first of the group of 80 trained urban shepherds is out on the downs (fields of grasslands) checking the sheep to make sure they are healthy and not stuck in brambles and have enough water.
Image from www.urban75.org/
The South Downs are pretty spectacular, but as can be seen from the photo, there is alot of grass there. Brighton and Hove Councils came up with the shepherd idea as a way to cut costs but also maintain the quality of the grasslands. The grass cutting bill is currently £25,000 a year while they reckon that the sheep project will reduce costs to just £1,800 a year.
If the grass is left uncut it becomes scrub, weed trees grow and take over the meadows, with the result that the downlands will be lost. Historically there have been sheep on the downs for thousands of years. It was a natural balance between man, sheep and nature. But in the last 60 years there were none because of the growth of urban sprawl, cost and ownership issues. The downs are made up of many small sites which are impractical to graze.
There are many environmental benefits to having sheep. A lawn mower cuts through all grass, whilst sheep graze selectively leaving uneven spots which allow for the re-growth of wildflowers and wild life.
The new shepherds have to make sure that the sheep are safe and not caught in brambles. They have to watch for wounded and dead ones too. The area is prime dog-walking territory and dogs off leash can terrorize and kill the sheep.
But they love the "job." It keeps them fit, out of trouble and they have developed a real affection for the sheep. As one said: "It's quite therapeutic. You have to stand back and watch and understand, and just be quiet. You can't rush a sheep."