Getting their goat: Manitoba Hydro could save money, energy with grazing animals

Buckingham Palace can give Hydro a great tip on saving money— use sheep to mow grass.

Using sheep or goats to trim grass could be a environmentally friendly alternative to mowing, herbicides

Sheep have been brought in to help trim Green Park, just opposite Buckingham Palace. Joanne Seiff says Manitoba Hydro should take the same approach to mowing grass under and around its power lines.

Buckingham Palace can give Manitoba Hydro a great tip on saving money — use sheep.

What if the Crown utility could clear its rights-of-way, save money and energy, pollute less and provide a boost for wildlife all at the same time?

If Hydro used sheep or goats to clear their power cuts, they could do all this and more.

Sounds crazy? Well, tell that to Buckingham Palace. Sheep were brought in last month to help trim Green Park, just opposite the Queen's residence.

A recent study done by Nicola Koper at the University of Manitoba and her co-author, Lionel Leston, indicates that Manitoba Hydro could save money and help the growth of native grasslands and wildlife — such as birds and butterflies — if the utility chose to mow less under some sections of power lines.

Hydro indicates that their rights-of-way must be kept clear. They use mowing and herbicides to do so.

Using grazing animals for such purposes is actually a much older, better way to keep those rights-of-way clear. For the first time since the 1920s and 30s, sheep are grazing in central London as a way to boost conservation efforts and increase urban biodiversity.

Two researchers from the University of Manitoba say Manitoba Hydro could mow less underneath power lines to save money and attract butterflies. Joanne Seiff suggests another alternative: mow with goats and sheep. (Submitted)

Sheep are great at grazing, also known as "mowing the lawn." If you have to mow, a carefully managed fibre-producing flock of sheep or angora goats could be a great choice over chemical herbicides.

This isn't just done as a publicity stunt in London's Green Park. Shepherds travel with their sheep and goats all over Europe and North America to carefully graze in areas underneath power lines like Hydro's rights-of-way.

It often starts with goats, who are masters at clearing away noxious weeds and turning them into valuable commodities like milk, meat and mohair fibre.

Then, if the areas are urban or remain cleared of toxic weeds, sheep can be introduced. 

These portable lawnmowers work steadily, usually kept in line with portable fencing. Often, a shepherd is nearby, perhaps with a camper van or tent.

In areas with predators, a guard animal like a llama, donkey, or dog will stand watch with the flock. A border collie might be used to keep the flock moving in the right direction.

All the while, the sheep continue to work. They produce age-old results for humans from their grazing efforts: wool, meat, and sometimes milk.

While it does take energy — gas, specifically — to move sheep from one far-flung right-of-way "pasture" to the next, it uses considerably less petroleum than mowing might. So Manitoba Hydro could reduce usage of petroleum, as well as cut back on air pollution, because even the most efficient lawn mowers create exhaust.

Grazing sheep instead of mowing would reduce energy usage, costs and pollution, says Joanne Seiff.

Further, the sheep and goats produce something valuable for the environment. As they eat, they also fertilize the land. If managed properly and moved regularly from one pasture to the next, their manure acts as fertilizer.

Meanwhile, their hooves aerate, creating rich soil for new prairie grasslands and wildflowers to grow in between their visits. This newly enriched habitat boosts wildlife, creating rich environments for birds, butterflies and more.

If Hydro chose to contract with a shepherd and her flock, all this could happen.

A boost for the local economy

But wait — there's more.

If Hydro owned the sheep and hired shepherds, the utility could create environmentally friendly jobs. If they sheared their animals responsibly (most sheep and fibre-producing goats must be shorn once or twice a year) and had their wool and fibre processed locally, even more positive economic growth would result.

At present, Canada has wool mills in several provinces: Custom Woollen Mills in Alberta, MacAuslands in Prince Edward Island, and Briggs and Little in New Brunswick, to name a few.

However, there are currently no commercial wool mills in Manitoba. If Hydro ran enough flocks of sheep, their wool might be worth processing locally. This would boost the local sheep-and-wool economy, which Manitoba definitely needs.

Processing natural fibres such as wool and flax takes much less energy and pollutes much less than using petroleum-based fibres such as acrylic, nylon and polyester.

Keep warm with Manitoba Hydro wool blankets?

As climate change continues, we need to seek these energy-efficient, traditional approaches toward clothing ourselves and staying warm. Hydro could invest in that future.

What will Hydro do with the wool that grows on those sheep? The utility could market its own Canadian-produced wool blankets.

If it's true that Hydro will raise electric rates by 46 per cent over five years, those of us who heat or cook with electricity may need those Manitoba-made woollies to keep warm as we look to curb energy bills.

Grazing sheep instead of mowing would reduce energy usage, costs and pollution.

Some hot, locally raised lamb stew could also help us make it through cold winter nights in the near future.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Joanne Seiff is the author of several books, including Knit Green, about textile sustainability. She works in Winnipeg as a freelance writer.