OSAKA — Sheep graze as children watch or pet them — a sight reminiscent of a farm or zoo. Such a scene, however, might become more common on riverbanks here as the animals are used as an alternative to lawn mowers.
In a trial between mid-April and mid-July, two sheep worked the weeds on the banks of the Ushitakigawa River in Izumiotsu, southern Osaka Prefecture.
The 5-year-old rams graze on a 700-sq.-meter plot. Junichi Nozoe, an official of the Osaka Prefectural Government, said the animals proved effective in removing the weeds, which can grow as tall as 60 cm.
The idea of using the bovid ruminants to curb weed growth was put forward by junior prefectural officials in charge of maintaining roads and rivers. After it was concluded they were cheaper in the long run than using humans, the prefectural government’s finance department gave the green light.
According to an estimate by the prefecture, the cost of keeping a riverbank neat can be cut by more than 50 percent if sheep are used.
For example, the maintenance of a 3,000-sq.-meter plot requires about 9.3 million yen over a 10-year period using human power. The sheep alternative promises to cut costs to 3.5 million yen for the same period.
“The most difficult part of this plan was obtaining the approval of the financial department. Once it was cleared, we did not find any particular problems,” Nozoe said.
The prefecture paid 30,000 yen for each of the sheep and spent 1 million yen on a shelter and a fence. Putting the initial costs aside, the maintenance of two sheep is expected to run to 400,000 yen annually, most of which will be spent on medical checkups.
Their daily care, including collection of droppings, was carried out by members of a local group of senior citizens.
“The appetite of a 5-year-old sheep is like that of a man in his 20s. The sheep kept eating weeds all day, so we had to expand the area to provide enough food,” Nozoe said.
Keeping the riverbank neat also led to a surprising and welcome side effect: The amount of litter fell sharply.
“Because the riverbank became neat and the sheep were there, people began to visit the area more often. As a consequence, people no longer dumped their trash there,” Nozoe said.
Despite the fence, people can easily access the bank.
Nozoe said the animals may prove to be an attraction due to their “healing effect.”
Akihisa Izumo, a researcher at the Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences Research Center of Osaka Prefecture, who checks the sheep’s health, said it is difficult to evaluate the potential healing power of the animals.
“Livestock have always been expected to produce something (such as milk and wool). But in this case, some kind of positive psychological effect on humans can be expected by the mere presence of the sheep,” he said.
Izumo also was positive about the future of the sheep mowing project, saying the animals eat a wide variety of weeds and are not prone to serious diseases.
“As long as appropriate shade is provided, sheep can survive even in the summer heat. The only worry is that people in the neighborhood may bring dogs into the area,” he said.
The project cannot be applied to all riverbanks, and the prefecture is studying appropriate locations for the next stage of the trial.
As soon as the next site is selected, the sheep will start mowing again, Nozoe said.
“First, you have to have space for the sheep shelter,” he said. “And a riverbank needs to be fenced in and large enough. In addition, and more importantly, locals have to be willing to take care of the sheep and the river.”