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Dr. Gary Kleppel is a biologist who studies how domesticated animals can be used to improve damaged ecosystems.  <i>Marie Cusick / WMHT</i>
Dr. Gary Kleppel is a biologist who studies how domesticated animals can be used to improve damaged ecosystems. Marie Cusick / WMHT

A shepherd's flock tackles nature's toughest plants

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Sheep - and cows and other livestock - can munch through a field in no time. In the process, they can upend the natural distribution of plants in the area.

With the right shepherd, though, it turns out that sheep can bring balance to an ecosystem by eating invasive plants, and do the job of a lawnmower, or an herbicide, without the pollution.

WMHT's Marie Cusick reports for the Innovation Trail.

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At the Normanskill farm on the outskirts of Albany, Sheep are grazing on a hillside, which at first seems overgrown and neglected, but it in fact it's just the opposite. This pastoral scene is a carefully monitored science experiment, complete with graduate students and twp border collies.

Dr. Gary Kleppel, professor of biology at SUNY Albany, is the head shepherd here studying a technique called "targeted grazing," which uses domesticated animals to control invasive plants.

"One of the dogmas that existed for a long time was that grazing is a negative process, it hurts plants but you know plants and grazers have co-evolved for millions of years," Kleppel said.

He's found that with the right approach his flock of sheep can have positive impacts on an ecosystem. "With 12 days of grazing, we're seeing 50 to 60 percent more species than we saw in an ungrazed landscape. To me, that's almost at the edge of believable biology."

Here's how it works: The sheep are turned loose into a paddock that's overrun with an invasive species.
They'll often start to eat that targeted plant, but if they don't, Dr. Kleppel draws them closer to it using light weight electrified fencing.

The technique has been practiced for years, overseas and in the American West, but it's gaining new ground in the Northeast. Here at the farm, the sheep are feasting on a thorny invasive called multiflora rose.

Giant hogweed is another plant menacing New York. Its toxic leaves can span 6 feet and cause blisters, scarring and even blindness to humans but Kleppel's breed of black-faced sheep eat it for breakfast.

"The toxin is negated, it doesn't have any effect, but the plant has as much as 20% protein, which is better than the best feed I can possibly get," Kleppel said.

This summer Kleppel's project is funded by New York's Department of Environmental Conservation. The state agency is hoping to find more natural ways of controlling invasive plants.

"One of the ways they do that suppression, and hopefully eradication, is with herbicides. But there's a real problem with a conservationist using herbicides. They just don't like that," Kleppel said.

Kleppel and his students are working to determine how targeted grazing might be used on state lands throughout New York.

One of those students is Caroline Girard. This is her third summer tending sheep as part of her doctoral research in biology. "I think people are finally starting to understand that when you apply a chemical on a plant, it doesn't just stay on that plant. It doesn't just kill that plant. Once the plant dies, those chemicals go somewhere," Girard said.

Girard points out another advantage of the sheep is that they're low maintenance. Tending them only takes a couple hours on a busy day.

It remains to be seen whether or not targeted grazing could be used on a wider scale, but Kleppel is confident the technique has merit: "The best thing we can do is let animals be animals and plants be plants, and just be patient. Nature figured this out a long time before we did."

In Albany, Marie Cusick for the Innovation Trail.

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