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The National Pasture: Bring sheep back to the Mall

These days, lawmakers are talking a lot about cutting budgets but not much about cutting carbon emissions. With spring around the corner, soon it will be time for cutting grass.

President Obama could address all three concerns by bringing sheep to the grounds of the White House and National Mall.

Wilson's flock, circa 1919.

Unlike conventional groundskeepers, sheep don't require salaries and expensive benefit packages. Unlike conventional lawnmowers, sheep don't pollute nor rely on foreign oil.

Sheep are powered by the grass they eat and then convert the clippings into a natural fertilizer. Sheep are nature's own lawn mowers.

Sheep have saved us before in times of national crisis. President Woodrow Wilson brought a flock to the White House grounds during World War I. Led by a famed tobacco-chewing ram named Old Ike, the sheep replaced expensive gardeners, freeing up men to fight and slashing groundskeeping costs. Although they occasionally munched on rare shrubbery and perennials, Wilson's flock trimmed the grass better than any lawnmower.

But the sheep did more than keep the grass at bay. The auctioning of prized White House wool raised over $100,000 for the Red Cross. That's equivalent to $1.5 million in today's dollars—money that could be well spent restoring the decrepit National Mall. But even beyond the sale of shearings, the federal flock would be an economic boon for Washington. Just think of the tourist kitsch.

Above all, returning sheep to the nation's capital would encourage sustainable agriculture. Urban farming is an important component of making cities more ecologically sound, and turning Washington's greatest open spaces into pastures would promote similar innovations across the country.

The Mall has been a symbol of our agrarian roots since the city's founding. Its earliest incarnation was a pasture called the Commons. Even in its current form, the National Mall was meant to embody the American rural ideal: plans for its redesign in 1902 featured a watercolor of a shepherd and his flock ambling across the lawn toward the Washington Monument.

During the Wilson administration, the White House sheep came to symbolize national sacrifice for the war effort. Today, a new flock in Washington could come to symbolize a sustainable American future—both fiscally and environmentally.


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You guys are a month early.

by April Fools? on Mar 1, 2011 1:13 pm • linkreport

It's also an effective way of keeping people on the sidewalks. You never know what you'll step in elsewhere.

by Steve S. on Mar 1, 2011 1:14 pm • linkreport

I had the same reaction as April Fools above.

by ... on Mar 1, 2011 1:16 pm • linkreport

Would this mean laying of the people who currently mow? I do wonder how manure would work. Would fences be necessary to control them? I see PETA having some fits over this.

by thedofc on Mar 1, 2011 1:20 pm • linkreport

Anything is better than that bird that epitomizes evil, the chicken which has no place in any DC neighborhood.

by canaan on Mar 1, 2011 1:23 pm • linkreport

And GGW has finally officially jumped the shark.

by Loon on Mar 1, 2011 1:24 pm • linkreport

Don't pollute? What about all the methane?

And the kickball crowd will not be pleased. Although I can't decide if that's a plus or a minus...

by Barry on Mar 1, 2011 1:26 pm • linkreport

Then there'll be something to eat for the wolves we're reintroducing into Rock Creek Park.

by oboe on Mar 1, 2011 1:26 pm • linkreport

Yes, put sheep back on the Mall. Seriously, yes.

by M.V. Jantzen on Mar 1, 2011 1:28 pm • linkreport

I can see it now--a small flock of sheep, tended by a gaggle 18 y/o girls in Little Bo Peep costumes. Hell, yeh!

by Alan on Mar 1, 2011 1:28 pm • linkreport

Hear hear! Or beeeh beeeh!

by Jasper on Mar 1, 2011 1:28 pm • linkreport

My god, you people are blind. Sheep on the mall is one step closer to organic lamb kabobs for Asura, and more signs that the Caliphate is upon us. Mrs. Obama strikes again.

by charlie on Mar 1, 2011 1:30 pm • linkreport

Not a ba-a-a-a-a-a-ad idea.

by The Diarist on Mar 1, 2011 1:33 pm • linkreport

"Unlike conventional groundskeepers, sheep don't require salaries and expensive benefit packages."

I don't know why I picked this tidbit out of the whole post, but who tends the sheep? Do they get salaries and benefits? Where do we put them? Do we build sheep pens?

Not that the infrastructure required is impossible, but why bother? Even withing the earthy-crunchy crowd that is the GGW readership (myself included), this doesn't pass the laugh test. Can you imagine the outside the beltway response?

by TimK on Mar 1, 2011 1:34 pm • linkreport

besides, we've got to do something to replace the petting area that is soon to be cut from the zoo.

by X on Mar 1, 2011 1:35 pm • linkreport

A GGW evergreen posting?

by Fritz on Mar 1, 2011 1:36 pm • linkreport

Jesus. Did all the snarky commenters exiled from Gawker make their way over here?
The fact of the matter is it's an idea that works. It worked in ~1919, it WORKS in Curitiba.
Will it ever happen here? Doubtful. But at least this article is examining ideas for different ways to address problems.

by kidincredible on Mar 1, 2011 1:38 pm • linkreport

Just curious, after World War I, why was the program discontinued?

by TimK on Mar 1, 2011 1:43 pm • linkreport

Do you realize how many GS-9 employees from PG County this would put out of work?

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 1, 2011 1:46 pm • linkreport

Sheep are people too ... sheeple! Sheeple unionize!

by The Diarist on Mar 1, 2011 1:47 pm • linkreport

I'm not sure which would be a bigger problem, PETA's inevitable complaints, or protecting them from poaching.

by Jamie on Mar 1, 2011 1:49 pm • linkreport

It just might be a good idea. Would they aerate and fertize the soil, consistent with NPS goals of "restoring" the mall and its fragile, compacted turf?

by spookiness on Mar 1, 2011 1:50 pm • linkreport

I don't think there would be much poaching. More grilling and braising probably.

by Lou on Mar 1, 2011 1:51 pm • linkreport

@TimK: Here's why.

by Jamie on Mar 1, 2011 1:54 pm • linkreport

Hey, it works for Google.

by Ron Alford on Mar 1, 2011 1:57 pm • linkreport

And @Lou wins the comments.

@Jamie, I assume that's the case as well, but I'd love to know if there was any source we could point to. But if we're claiming it "worked" in 1919, it might be instructive to figure out why it was discontinued.

by TimK on Mar 1, 2011 1:58 pm • linkreport

I wonder if Google's environmental analysis accounts for the methane output of the goats. In any event, I would fully support having feral goats introduced into the DC ecosystem. Don't they eat trash?

by Jamie on Mar 1, 2011 2:00 pm • linkreport


What a refreshing change from the ubiquitous goose poop.

by oboe on Mar 1, 2011 2:09 pm • linkreport

@oboe, not to mention the never ending supply of bull sh*t from Capitol Hill...

by Jamie on Mar 1, 2011 2:10 pm • linkreport

I like the idea of a free roaming petting zoo that would be staffed by volunteers. Maybe supported by the farm lobby.

by Ronnie on Mar 1, 2011 2:23 pm • linkreport

It will certainly diminish drunken kickballers, softball players and soccer hooligans from accosting us this summer.

by Redline SOS on Mar 1, 2011 2:24 pm • linkreport


by andrew on Mar 1, 2011 2:24 pm • linkreport

I don't believe this will save money. Anyone have a CBO score on it?

by WRD on Mar 1, 2011 2:38 pm • linkreport

@WRD, I agree. Sounds like @Adam Irish is trying to fleece us. You can't pull the wool over our eyes! This idea is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

by Jamie on Mar 1, 2011 2:40 pm • linkreport

It's how the grass gets mowed in west coast wine country. It's completely workable. The sheep can be driven from site to site in the DC National Park Service system by truck. It's not like they'll live on the Mall, they just work there from time to time. They can be kept and cared for at another National Park Service property where there is room, such as the National Arboretum.

by Read on Mar 1, 2011 2:45 pm • linkreport

I think Colorado DOT has used them to maintain interchanges. And apparently it's been tried in Maryland:

Excerpt -

"This summer the Maryland State Highway Administration is renting a herd of goats and sheep to control invasive weeds in a wetland area. Spokesman Charlie Gischlar says using a 7,500-pound lawn mower in the area would embed ruts that could destroy the area's hydrology and endanger the habitat of the Bog Turtle, a 4-inch turtle that is listed as a threatened species.

"I do not doubt that we might do this on other sites in the future," says Bill Branch, a highway administration environmental analyst.""

by KG on Mar 1, 2011 3:14 pm • linkreport


And of course, now AdamIrish is on the lamb. Also, metaphor using the phrase "hunt him down."

by WRD on Mar 1, 2011 3:17 pm • linkreport

Ah, our commentariat does have a sense of humor.

Unfortunately, this idea is too strange to work on such a high-profile stretch of turf. I'd love to see the WH and Capitol grounds get this treatment, but I can almost hear the soundbites decrying the overgreening of our country: A real American uses a John Deere riding mower!

by OctaviusIII on Mar 1, 2011 3:40 pm • linkreport

I've got to mulch this one over before I comment on it.


by Lance on Mar 1, 2011 3:50 pm • linkreport

@Redline SOS, I think sheep will attract Kickball players (at least the male ones who went to Texas A&M), not repel them.

by David C on Mar 1, 2011 4:10 pm • linkreport

How bipartisan! Liberals will love the eco aspect of it and religious conservatives will appreciate the allusion to biblical sheep metaphors.

by Eric Fidler on Mar 1, 2011 4:12 pm • linkreport

Better sheep pastures than more dog parks!!

by Bob on Mar 1, 2011 4:13 pm • linkreport

"Just curious, after World War I, why was the program discontinued?"

While I don't know the reason it was discontinued, I would guess that this wouldn't be too efficient today. As mentioned in the article, this was preferable in the early 20th century because it allowed resources to go fight while a single person could tend to the sheep. Back in 1915, they weren't exactly using riding mowers. They were probably using manual reel mowers or gang mowers. The gasoline-powered mower wasn't invented until the 30s.

The groundskeepers that eventually left to fight in the war wouldn't be able to do nearly as much as a single guy on a riding mower can today. My guess is that today's groundskeeper would probably cost less than or as much per acre mowed as the tobacco farmer did during the war. Certainly cheaper than a crew of dozens of workers pushing manual mowers for several work days.

Fun idea, but hardly more economically efficient than today's powered mowers.

by SB on Mar 1, 2011 4:39 pm • linkreport

I really like this idea, especially if the First National Groundskeeping Herd of Patriotic Sheep (would have to be named thusly to get through Congress) could be moved around to tend various plots of NPS land in the District.

But sadly, we live in a political climate where the First Lady is regularly blasted for encouraging kids to eat their vegetables and your acceptance of scientific facts is based on your voter registration status. This idea would be drowned in a bathtub as soon as it was uttered in the halls of power.

I like the outside-the-box thinking, though. Let's keep it up.

by Bryant Turnage on Mar 2, 2011 2:08 am • linkreport

The idea is great; at the least it should be offered as an alternative. My only suggestion is that the NPS should use goats instead of sheep, since they are more easily trained and produce cleaner waste.

by Neil Flanagan on Mar 2, 2011 2:51 am • linkreport

As others have mentioned, this method is used by governments around the world.

It would probably work better in the fenced in white house than the mall though. But even the mall shouldnt be a problem. 1 staff member, one sheep herding dog, and you're in business.

As for the poo....I'm sure they have collectors, like those urban horses use to keep their waste off roads.

by JJJJJ on Mar 2, 2011 4:17 am • linkreport

Well, actually the whole reason we aesthetically prefer short grass is because in the late 18th Century, a romanticized ideal of pastoral country life became in vogue (Marie Antoinette really helped popularize this). Meadows and pastures in the countryside have short grass because of all the sheep etc, so short lawns became de rigueur (and the gentry did use sheep to accomplish this).

So now our obsession with the "look" of short grass is mostly due to romanticized pastoralism. That and there's bugs in long grass and it's not as fun to sit/play in :)

by Catherine on Mar 2, 2011 10:09 am • linkreport

Oh, also there were actually sheep on Sheep Meadow in Central Park until the mid-30s. Now I have to go figure out how and why I know so much about sheep and grass and such. I'm not sure I've even seen a sheep up close and personal outside of a petting zoo context. And I've certainly never been one to bother with lawns and landscaping. The most outdoor space I've ever "owned" is a brick patio....


by Catherine on Mar 2, 2011 10:12 am • linkreport

More than a century ago, Thorstein Veblen in Theory of the Leisure Class explained why lawns don't have grazing animals even though they are imitations of pastures. He wrote that to avoid “the vulgar suggestion of thrift, which is nearly inseparable from the cow” the grass cannot be kept short by grazing animals; it must be mowed by human beings.

by Ben Ross on Mar 2, 2011 10:28 am • linkreport

Clearly none of you are knitters or know any crazy, yarn obsessed knitter tourists. They're everywhere, and they are crazy, and have dollars to spend. The National Needle Arts Association, a craft industry trade group published a study showing that in 2010 alone, an estimated $629 million was spent by American knitters on yarn and supplies. Crocheters spent an estimated $264 million. I've seen women who might punch someone out in order to get closer to a $45 skein of hand-dyed, American-sourced wool (and promptly . I can't imagine what they'd do for fleece from the mall!

by Kinley Bray on Mar 2, 2011 11:33 am • linkreport

Goats are primarily browsers, not grazers. So you'd want a herd of goats handy to keep down the poison ivy. But otherwise, for regular lawn maintenance, you'd want sheep.

by Miriam on Mar 2, 2011 11:42 am • linkreport

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