Four-Legged Grounds Crew

One hundred Southdown sheep once mowed the expansive lawn of William Rockefeller’s estate, Rockwood Hall, in North Tarrytown, NY.  A century later sheep and goats are grazing once again, but now the property is part of Rockefeller State Park Preserve (Preserve) in the renamed community of Sleepy Hollow.

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Sheep grazing at Rockefeller State Park Preserve.

Over recent years, the steep slopes and historic stone foundation overlooking the Hudson River became overrun by the highly invasive akebia vine (Akebia quinata), porcelainberry vine (Ampelopis brevipedunculata) and other invasive species.  To control the vines and manage the grassy hillsides, the Preserve has partnered with Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, a neighboring non-profit working farm and education center, to rotate sheep and goats around the foundation.  Stone Barns gets more grass and forage for their sheep, while public lands get invasive species more under control in an ecofriendly way.

The project was begun in mid-summer of 2014 with 50 sheep augmented by 7 goats over four months.  This year Rockwood Hall will host 10 Boer goats, 30 Tunis sheep and 50 Finn Dorset sheep. They are rotated every 4-6 days through small paddocks enclosed with temporary electric netting and peripheral fencing.   Chris O’Blenness, a farmer employed by Stone Barns Center, is managing the flock and stays on-site at night in a travel trailer.

This is the first joint Rockefeller State Park Preserve-Stone Barns Center experiment aimed at improving landscape health and ecosystem function.  It is also a potential strategy for increasing access to land for beginning farmers.  Chris O’Blenness is representative of beginning farmers and ranchers who are searching for land to work. This type of symbiotic grazing arrangement on public lands is a potential model for other public lands that can offer beginning farmers affordable opportunities for land access—all while performing a vital public service and delighting Preserve visitors.

Envisioned as a multi-year initiative, this on-going land management is needed to make headway against the fast-growing spread of invasive species.   So far grazing is making a difference, but progress would be lost if grazing were stopped.  Although 90 grazing animals sounds like a lot, it’s not on a large landscape.  We have also added weedwacking and mowing to the rotation.  Since the grazing started, one terrace, once engulfed in a 3 foot tangle of thick porcelainberry vine, is now able to be mowed weekly and visitors are able to spread blankets on grass and picnic where no one dared before.

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Terrace with porcelainberry in the summer of 2014.
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The same terrace in December of 2014 after grazing and mowing.

As the Preserve and Stone Barns gain experience and increase numbers of animals, we’re hoping to fine-tune the grazing to achieve ecological and foraging goals.  Meanwhile, the baas of the sheep and goat greet visitors, many of whom now stop and look and think about invasive species and land management challenges.

Post and photos by Susan Antenen, Rockefeller State Park Preserve Manager.

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