Sheep Help Landscape at Busch Gardens® Williamsburg

Sheep_BGW1

Williamsburg, Va. (August 2013) – Sometimes being green involves going “baaack” to low-tech. 

The 23-time winner of the world’s “Most Beautiful Park” award by the National Amusement Park Historical Association has added some unusual members to the park’s landscaping team: 17 Scottish blackface sheep. The sheep, which typically reside at Highland Stables in the Scotland village at Busch Gardens® Williamsburg, were trained to test an innovative, environmentally friendly program of “targeted grazing.”

The initiative is a first for the park’s parent company SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment™, which cares for one of the world’s largest collections of animals across its 11 theme parks.

The pilot began earlier this summer and has been so successful the park is now expanding it and adding other animals including a “clean-up crew” of chickens and turkeys.

Targeted grazing involves training animals to naturally manage landscaping by eating grass and plants from certain areas. The innovative practice has had both environmental and operational benefits for Busch Gardens Williamsburg including:

  • Reducing the need for powered lawn equipment, reducing the park’s carbon footprint
  • Saving nearly 100 gallons of fuel a year
  • Saving nearly 288 labor hours a year, time that can be reallocated to other landscaping initiatives(that require hands) such as flower pruning, edging and planting
  • Producing manure for the turf

In addition to providing a green method for landscaping, the animals are also a natural fit for the terrain: sheep are skilled and sure-footed on steep slopes that can sometime present challenges to human landscapers.

Guests can see the flock grazing along the sloping banks of the Rhine River below the tracks of Busch Gardens’ newest roller coaster, Verbolten®. 

STEP 1: PREPARING THE LANDSCAPE

The first step in implementing the new program was a careful examination of the plants on the grounds beneath Verbolten’s steel track. “Before launching the program, we extensively studied the toxicology of the plants in the park,” said Jay Tacey, Busch Gardens’ zoological operations manager. “We scoured the area and removed any plants that might not be good for sheep,” said Tacey. “We haven’t had to remove much. The sheep graze on what they’re supposed to.”

STEP 2: TRAINING THE ANIMALS

Stephanie Peters, an animal care specialist at Busch Gardens, is one of several trainers who helped acclimate the sheep to their new environment.  This included using positive reinforcement techniques to desensitize the animals to the ambient roller coaster noise in the area.

“We took them out for an hour or two in the morning before the park opened when Verbolten was not running. After several positive tests, we brought the sheep out while the coaster was operating.  When one of the coasters came around, we would give the sheep food and other forms of positive reinforcement as the coaster train passed over them,” said Peters. “If the sheep ignored the ride or moved close to a trainer instead of running away, we positively reinforced this behavior.”

The sheep quickly acclimated to the roller coasters. The total acclimation took only two days.

STEP 3: SCHEDULING THE CREW

Once the sheep were comfortable, the zoological and landscaping staff worked together to determine how many animals were needed in the area. They also determined the grazing frequency and duration that the sheep needed to trim the grass down to the desired level.  On average, the sheep graze for about five hours a day as part of the targeted grazing program, though the amount of time depends on the weather.   The sheep are not brought out to graze during adverse or unfavorable weather conditions.

STEP 4: EXPAND THE PROGRAM

In addition to sheep, Busch Gardens is training an avian “clean-up crew” consisting of two turkeys and four chickens.  The birds will be released behind the sheep to eat ticks and other parasites while spreading the manure produced by the sheep.

“The chickens and turkeys are still young so they’re in the barn getting used to the sheep, hearing the music in the park and undergoing training sessions,” said Peters. “They’re being trained to recall to the trainer with a cowbell and also to enter an animal carrier when called. Eventually we will deploy them under the roller coaster and let them do their thing.”

SHEEP FACTS:

  • On average, sheep will graze around seven hours a day.
  • A sheep eats about 2.5 to 3 pounds of grass a day
  • While grazing, sheep typically eat grass, clover and broad-leaf flowering plants, called forbs.