City of Calgary employing sheep to restore native grass in Weaselhead Park


CALGARY -- It’s called targeted grazing and animals rather than chemicals are being used as an integrated approach to managing invasive species.

Jonathon Little works for the Creekside Goat Company and is in charge of the 102 sheep that are working at Weaselhead Park.  They’ve set up camp in the park and Little is with them around the clock.

The sheep work from sun up to sun down.

"“We made sure they knew there was grass here and this is a really hearty heard," said Little. "They’re used to pawing through snow and so they went right to digging and they haven’t stopped they’ve been doing a really great job, they don’t seem to be bothered by the cold at all."

In 2016 the city started a pilot project using goats for this purpose at Confluence Park in the northwest.  The goats help to encourage biodiversity and the growth of native vegetation that enhances health in this natural area.

Council approved an amendment to the Parks and Pathways bylaw three years ago to allow for alternative land management tools, such as livestock, to manage vegetation. Now the city is using sheep for the same purpose in Weaselhead Park in the southwest.

Animals are able to easily and safely access hard to reach areas like unstable steep slopes, bluffs, dense vegetation, rock piles and riparian areas.

The City’s sheep grazing program, called "Rescue the Fescue", began Nov. 26. It focuses on a special area of Weaselhead over a two-week period.  

The program is targeting a patch of rough fescue habitat.  It’s a native grass species that has declined across the prairie region over the last 100 years. Rough fescue is used to being disturbed periodically by fire or grazing animals. In the absence of fire and grazing, the rough fescue chokes out its habitat over the years by filling in the open ground with dead material. Sheep grazing will boost the health and longevity of this habitat.

While goats prefer woody material and flowers over grasses, sheep prefer grass for grazing and are more likely to graze down to the surface and remove the dead material.

Rough fescue goes dormant in the fall, putting all its reserves into underground roots. Removing the dead standing grasses will let the plant rejuvenate, grow and move into open spaces in the springtime. 

The site will also be drier and more exposed which helps it outcompete non-native grasses.

Calgary’s cold temperatures last week brought concern by people seeing the herd out in the open.  The Calgary Humane Society is investigating.

"Now that there’s been a complaint lodged we will follow up on that and talk to the city about what the reality is with regards to the care of the animals and if there are any deficiencies make sure those are corrected," said Brad Nichols, senior manager of animal cruelty investigation with the Calgary Humane Society.