In France, companies, public authorities and individuals are renting sheep to keep their grass lawns trimmed. Naturama, an organization from Lyon, says their project reduces carbon emissions and promotes biodiversity.
Cutting the grass in Marie-Josee Gellet's yard does not involve the whirr of a mechanical lawnmower. Instead, all you hear is the gentle munching of sheep enjoying a grassy snack.
"They basically roam freely in my garden, and just do what they want," Gellet told DW. At her home in downtown Lyon, she explains that she has not had to do any work to keep the lawn tidy, the sheep take care of it.
"I'm not really an environmentalist, but it's nice to have the chance to get involved in this form of eco-citizenship, here in the city," Gellet says.
Gellet's lawn-mowing sheep are part of an initiative of Christophe Darpheuil, director of Naturama, an association for environmental education and a pioneer of urban shepherding in France.
"These will be the shepherds of the future. There are such difficulties being a shepherd outside the city nowadays, but inside the city, the future is theirs," he says.
Darpheuil brought endangered Soay breed sheep to France from Scotland six years ago. Once they arrived, he realized he didn't have enough grass to feed them, so he started renting them out to trim lawns in public spaces.
"First, people thought it was ridiculous," recalls Darpheuil "But once they saw how efficient it was, they said: 'Oh, yeah! It's worth it.' Now, we have five or six city authorities who rent these sheep all year long."
The Soay sheep are particularly suitable to this type of work because they need little care - even their wool sheds on its own. They can graze in steep areas that are hard to reach with machines and their droppings also fertilize the land.
As well as saving fuel, reducing noise and cutting CO2 emissions, the sheep also help preserve biodiversity.
"On grass, you will find butterflies and dragonflies," says Darpheuil. "The sheep won't eat them and they won't eat the babies of the insects. It's different with the machine. There, everything is crushed, everything is broken."
But using the sheep requires changing certain aesthetic standards – those wanting even, manicured lawns cut to a specific length may not be satisfied with the animal's methods.
"The sheep, you have to understand, are eating for themselves; they're not worried about keeping the place looking perfect. They will select the grass that is the juiciest," says Darpheuil.
Creating eco jobs
There are other hurdles to overcome too. Fences must be installed for the sheep and that involves working through bureaucratic red tape and revisiting municipal zoning laws. Some people also enjoy deliberately bothering the sheep.
Darpheuil has learned to deal with these issues and now aims to share his expertise. To train urban shepherds, he's developing an educational program for the National Agronomics School in Toulouse.
"We will try to create a new kind of job," says Darpheuil. "You don't need to have 300 sheep to earn a proper living. If you have only 30-40 sheep, you could live nearly all year long, renting out your sheep to the cities."
Not just in France
Urban sheep might come in handy in Germany, too. In Berlin, the former Tempelhof airfield has been turned into a huge public park. "In 2014 or 2015, it might be an option to have some sheep or some cattle here to try this out," says Michael Krebs, manager of the park.
Using sheep may not lower costs, but it does give young city-dwellers a chance to learn about agriculture, Krebs says.
And, it's not only young people who benefit from the presence of the animals in the city, according to 91-year-old Lyon resident Louis Roure.
"Shrub and thorns are taking over here, it's terrible. I don't want to be invaded by them, so I've found a solution: the sheep," he says. "I've also found that they're great company too."