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Flocks of grazing sheep tend to Dutch urban green corridors

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Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

HEERENVEEN, the Netherlands – Former agricultural journalist Diederik Sleurink has gone ’back to the land’ while fellow farmers are being squeezed on all sides in the Netherlands. They battle production quotas, the possible return of agricultural land to unregulated nature, the bureaucracy of animal waste disposal rules, the plans for emergency flood plain reservoirs, and the pressures of new transportation corridors and numerous new subdivisions, reasons for many to pull up stakes for other countries or simply to retire. Sleurink and a few others instead are bringing farm animals back to the city.

In an amazing twist of irony, new entrepreneurs with a keen sense of environmentalism and nature preservation, both popular concepts among the urbanized Dutch, have sold municipalities on the benefits of using sheep to graze urban green corridors and parks over using machinery which mows rare plant species along with the grass. Using a flock of sheep has other practical benefits, the animals graze hard to reach areas between and around trees and along soggy and unstable ditch shoulders. As well, sheep are credited with transmitting seeds in their wooly coat from one grazing site to another, considered a plus by naturalists.


In his previous work environment, Sleurink always was close to his rural roots and reported on these new urban sheep flocks-for-hire as well. Attracted by this phenomenon, he contacted Sjaar van Beek, who about twenty years ago launched his sheep flock-for-hire, then a subsidized make-work program for unemployables. Initially, several of such shepherded flocks were used to tend to the dwindling heaths and restore them from being overgrown by grass and weeds (actually the result of the disappearance of such labour intensive and small-scale farming). Credited with enhancing area tourism and cultural heritage preservation, the flocks of sheep since then cleared all the budgetary hurdles with politicians and bureaucrats. The reintroduction of such flocks on the Veluwe, in Limburg and Drenthe eventually spread to Sleurink’s type of commercial applications.

Sleurink who resides in Heerenveen, regrets he failed to get the grazing contract in his hometown. A competitor undercut his bid. According to Sleurink, the quality of grazing easily can erode if price starts to rule this type of business. In bidding for contracts he considers a range of factors, including soil conditions, the type of grass, the terrain and the objectives of the customer. A well-grazed area gives rare plant species space and thus enriches plant life.

Not all is well among the flocks of sheep in the Lowlands. Both the Netherlands and Belgium recently were confronted with the outbreak of the contagious bluetongue. Promising not to engage in mass culling of affected animals, the government put Slearink and his colleagues somewhat at ease. Since sheep particularly are vulnerable to the virus, the turn of events nonetheless is unsettling to the shepherds, the new Dutch entrepreneurs.