The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, April 20, 2001


ConsCom ruminates on sheepish proposal for Towle Field

What would the Carlisle Conservation Commission say to an offer to serve as a test site for a project that could eliminate unsightly buckthorn and the arch invader, poison ivy, from the town’s Towle Field conservation land? And, by the way, accomplish that miracle with no adverse environmental effects. The answer which came at the commission’s April 12 meeting was an enthusiastic “yes,” from all but one member.

The proposed solution to this gnawing problem, suggested by Art Milliken, president of the private Carlisle Conservation Foundation (CCF), promised to be both effective and appealing: bring in a flock of 200 grazing sheep, a sharp-eyed herding dog, a shepherd and a movable electrified fence to clear the field.

Milliken reported that he, Gordon Shaw of the Concord Land Trust, two members of the Concord Natural Resources Commission, Bill Fuchs from the National Park Service and others had attended an April 6 meeting with sheep owner Dick Henry of Bellweather Solutions, a New Hampshire environmental consulting firm. Henry is hoping to establish an intensive grazing pilot project in the Concord area this summer, once his flock of 650 woolly ruminants completes other commitments including clearing of vegetation under long-distance power lines in the Granite State. Bellweather Solutions is also working with The Trustees of Reservations to determine if sheep grazing is a viable management tool for their diverse properties. The Trustees are presently assessing the results of high impact grazing at Appleton Farms in Ipswich and Hog Island in the Crane Wildlife Refuge in Essex.

Funding possibilities

Milliken reported that attendees at the Concord meeting were intrigued by the back-to-the-future possibilities of the project and appeared willing to chip in on the $20,000 cost of the experiment. CCF, for example, is interested in using the sheep to clear portions of their Spencer Brook Reservation and Milliken felt that the organization could probably raise Carlisle’s portion of the funding. The group also believes that Towle Field would be an ideal site because of its size and so far unsuccessful battle against invasive plant species. Another possible local target for the herd, suggested by former commissioner Steve Hinton, was the dog trail system at Foss Farm, which is becoming nearly impassible in places.

200 sheep, two days

Milliken pointed out that the animals not only consume unwanted invasives right down to the roots, but their final product is a better field in every respect. The four-legged vacuum cleaners can go into crevices in stone walls and other terrain where machinery is useless; they remove thatch from hay fields, and fertilize the soil naturally and with minimum odor, thus encouraging rapid regrowth of desirable grasses.

Testifying strongly in favor of the experiment, commissioner and farm manager John Lee described the approach as “an exciting, tasteful way to handle our poison ivy problem.” He informed them that it takes 200 sheep per acre for two days at a time to do the job, with the process needing to be repeated a second year. Milliken cautioned that this should not be viewed as a cost-saving device, but “as a great management tool” the eventual cost of which could be within reason if spread out over a number of contract users.

Some skepticism

Chair Tom Brownrigg was the only board member with serious reservations. He was concerned that rare flowers and plants in the area might also be destroyed. Milliken responded that any area populated by treasured species could be fenced off easily, but Brownrigg remained skeptical. The final “sense-of-the-commission” resolution found four members in favor and one reserving judgment.

There are still problems to be worked out, including where the sheep will be pastured upon arrival and between local assignments. Possibilities mentioned were The Trustees’ Appleton Farm or the former O’Rourke Farm, now part of Great Meadows Wildlife Reservation.

A final footnote for doubting ex-suburbanites: an individual sheep can consume up to eight pounds of vegetative matter a day!