Researchers at a US university have come up with a novel way to reduce stress among urban dwellers – watching sheep.
For the past two years, 25 sheep have been allowed to graze on grass at central campus locations at the University of California at Davis (UC Davis).
And scientists say the flock is doing much more than mowing and fertilising the ecosystem by reducing noise pollution and decreasing fossil fuel consumption from mechanical lawnmowers.
Researchers surveyed around 200 students and staff and found that those who studied near to their habitats, or simply walked passed them, had a ‘significantly lower likelihood of being stressed’ – compared with people who didn’t encounter them.
They said seeing the animals helped improve people’s mental health and even proved to calm pre-exam nerves.
The four female black-faced breeds– Suffolk, Hampshire, Southdown and Dorset – first took on the role in 2021, during the Covid pandemic, when they were bought in to manage the grass during lockdowns.
They are fenced in, given access to clean water and taken back and forth to their barns in the morning and at night by trailer.
Lead author Haven Kiers, an Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture and director of the original project, said: ‘This started out as an experiment to test their mowing abilities, and we have now published research on how they make people feel peaceful.
‘We found that there was a significantly lower likelihood of current feelings of being “very stressed” or “stressed” among the sheep mower group when compared to the group that did not experience sheep mowers. The group with the sheep was just so much happier.
‘We really need to look at how we can get the most out of landscape management, in all forms — in the physical environment as well as mental health.’
Take A (Sheep)Break
Mina Bedogne, a research assistant in her fourth year of undergraduate work in environmental science and management, explained: ‘Just taking a break from a chaotic workday and mindlessly observing the flock has brought joy to so many people. Some students find our grazing events so therapeutic that they’ll stay there for hours eating lunch, doing work and catching up with friends.’
The team said their findings, published in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, were important when students of all ages have said that they struggle with stress and mental health.
The students agree. ‘I loved seeing the sheep right before my chem midterm’, one wrote on the research team’s Instagram survey. ‘It helped me distract myself and not stress right before taking the exam.’
‘I think this is a really smart project’, another student told The Aggie, the university newspaper, noting that the sheep are ‘cheap labor’.
‘Loneliness is a struggle for many of our students,’ said co-author Carolyn Dewa, chair of the Graduate Group in Public Health Sciences and Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.
‘One robust research finding is that social support is a protective factor for mental health. One of the ways the sheep mower events help to promote mental health is by providing an opportunity for a shared experience. The events help people to see that they are a part of a larger group and give people a sense of community.’
The study also looked at how, historically, the US has allowed sheep to graze on land at iconic location such as New York’s Central Park and The White House as livestock attractions for visitors.
A spokesperson for the UK’s National Sheep Association said there was ‘no doubt’ introducing sheep to urban areas would benefit individuals. But they warned of the risk from dogs worrying the animals and said the health and welfare of the sheep must be guaranteed.