An old couch. Empty cups. A rogue flip flop. A floated keg — in any college town worth its salt, you’ll find these things flung across yards, especially during football season.
Something you won’t often find? Three hard-working goats.
“My roommates and I needed somebody to pick up our landscaping slack, and the goats were perfect for that,” says Zach Richardson, who was a landscape architecture student at the University of Georgia when he first turned to goats for urban grazing.
A bachelors and masters in landscape architecture later, he brought that experience back to Tennessee and turned it into the Nashville Chew Crew, a company that uses sheep to safely clear overgrown landscapes.
Richardson was always social and loved the idea of a career outdoors, but he never anticipated it would be his four-hooved friends that would help him marry the two.
“What was so important for me in college was realizing that a yard full of goats just chewing on weeds somehow made our backyard the place to hang out,” he recalls.
“People often think of landscaping as making something pretty, but the real goal is to bring people to the space, to engage the public. Animals are so charismatic, they do that automatically. I remember thinking, ‘This is cheating! This is way too easy.’”
A herd of Houdinis
But it wasn’t simple. Richardson quickly learned that goats always tend to think the grass is greener on the other side.
“We didn’t have adequate fencing at first, so it was jailbreak central; we’d find the goats wandering around the neighborhood or standing on top of a car,” he says, laughing. “Goats are so independent and mischievous.”
“Sheep are much more flock-oriented — 30 of them will happily stay together grazing in a field for weeks — whereas with goats, you’ve got a bunch of four-legged Houdinis.”
“Guaranteed mutiny. And that’s why we use sheep now.”
So what’s the difference in the two species?
Aside from one acting like an opera singer and the other like Axl Rose circa ’87. There are a few things:
- Goat tails point up; sheep tails point down
- Goats are browsers, looking for shrubby growth; sheep are primarily grazers, preferring grasses and vines.
- Some goats have beards; sheep don’t (though some have manes).
- Goats roam alone; sheep like to flock together.
The clearing benefits of both are the same, but the sheep’s focus and contentment means they’ll generally stay where there’s food until they get the job done.
He does use a lightly electrified fence to keep the sheep in and predators out. It gives them the equivalent of a static shock, so while it’s unpleasant, it’s not painful.
Going to the dogs
Getting sheep from one place to another is the easiest part, thanks to his canine cavalry. The flock is accompanied at all times by livestock guardian dogs to protect them against threats (coyotes, stray dogs), and the guardians form an unbreakable bond with their sheep.
“We take the sheep over in Ol’ Red, our livestock trailer, and then Duggie, my Border Collie, walks them into their enclosure,” he says. “Duggie is a million-dollar tool when it comes to moving sheep, and also the best co-worker a guy could ask for.”
“Duggie my right-hand man — anywhere I go, he follows.”
The guardians are true working dogs — typically Great Pyrenees or Anatolian Shepherd. Rarely used in the U.S. today, these dogs have been part of shepherding for centuries in other parts of the world (though few have names as colorful as Richardson’s crew, which includes Reba, Dolly, Patsy and Sturgill). In a city, protection is key because the flock often draws a crowd.
Take us, for example.
Unsung Nashville took the shots below while boating on the Cumberland River. We happened upon the Chew Crew merrily grazing on the bluffs of the Cumberland River Greenway, and every boat that passed and every person that rode by pulled up to watch them work.
It’s an instinct Richardson became familiar with during his time in Athens— the need to investigate when you see a flock of sheep in the middle of the city. After receiving a grant to study methods of eradicating exotic invasive plants, he placed his sheep and goats on a 2-acre overgrown parcel in the middle of campus right next to the football stadium.
“The project was a huge success, and it taught me the importance of a good fence,” he remembers.
“I think every freshman walking back to his dorm would either touch the electric fence or try to have a conversation with goats.”
“I remember one kid in particular who kept yelling, ‘Hey llamas!!!,’ if that’s any indication how of big a night he’d had. I tell you, sitting on the parking deck watching that all play out — there was no better show in Athens.”
Chew on this
Sheep are biologically built to act like four-legged lawnmowers, defoliating everything from the ground up to six feet high. They can generally clear an acre per week, depending upon the terrain. Richardson uses “hair sheep,” which shed their coats naturally unlike the wool-producing variety. This makes them better suited to Tennessee’s warm summers and mild winters.
Sheep have also literally evolved to eat.
“Sheep have four-chambered stomachs, so they fill up as much as they can, retreat to the safety of the trees to digest it, and then they’re back on the clock within a few hours,” says Richardson. “They don’t eat trash though! That’s a myth. Honestly, it would be easier if they did because once they graze an area, every bit of trash is exposed. They also have incredible balance and agility, which allows them to handle really steep slopes and thick brush.”
Again, we can attest to that. The day Unsung visited the Crew at Fort Negley, it took 15 minutes of scaling small crags and whistling Duggie’s commands for us to reach the flock. Many burrs and near-rock-slides later, we arrived at a steep, hidden crevice where we found the sheep noshing away, curious enough to look up but not to stop eating.
“To be honest, the sheep aren’t that social — it’s one thing that keeps them from being stolen or led astray — but they are interesting to watch,” Richardson says. “For the people who hire us, they love the sheep because they’ll handle landscapes that would be too steep, rough or swampy for humans, and we don’t have to use any herbicides or motorized equipment,” he says.
“Plus when we’re clearing more delicate spaces like a cemetery with really old graves, for example, they won’t damage the headstones like a lawnmower bumping into them would.”
Metro recently used Richardson’s sheep for exactly that, clearing Nashville City Cemetery for an upcoming live history tour featuring theatrical renditions of the settlers who built Fort Nashborough in 1779.
The day we visited Fort Negley, the sheep were clearing the areas around stoneworks to help restore access and views of Negley, the largest inland fort built in the U.S. during the Civil War.
Helping people uncover and reclaim history in such a tangible way is rewarding for Richardson, especially as a native Nashvillian.
“There’s this whole element of sheep archaeology that uncovers neat things, from old classic cars to sheds to stone buildings,” he says. “When we did the Richland Creek greenway, personally that meant a lot for me because I grew up catching crawdads on that creek, and now other people can enjoy it the same way I did.”
Herd is the word
The Chew Crew is mostly used to tackle impenetrable vegetation and non-native invasive plants (kudzu, honeysuckle), usually when clearing involves:
- Steep topography
- Proximity to water
- Budget constraints of hiring workers with power equipment
- Impenetrable vegetation
By the numbers:
- 3 rams
- 6 dogs
- 150 ewes
“In any kind of farm operation, very few males are used. So, I’ve got one ram for roughly every 60 ewes. They’re busy guys!”