Milton Keynes is unique in many ways, but having livestock in the parks is one of the town’s most unusual and treasured features.
When are you most likely to see sheep in the fields?
From early spring to the autumn, the Trust has around 400 sheep out and about in our fields. They will be moved to different fields to ensure they have sufficient food and reduce the impact on the land. You will often see them grazing in Campbell Park throughout the year.
This figure reduces in the winter. In addition to protecting the sheep from our harshest weather and preventing the ground getting heavily poached, many of the grazing fields are in floodplains, such as the Ouse and Ouzel Valley so could not be used. The animals are taken to the farm and housed in barns over the winter months.
Why do we have sheep?
The sheep help us to maintain wildlife habitats, creating better conditions for a great variety of wildflowers which in turn attract many pollinating insects such as butterflies, bees and hoverflies as well as larger animals and birds. Without grazing livestock we would need to use heavy machinery more regularly to mow the grass and then remove the cuttings. If the cut grass is not removed, the nutrients enrich the soil, promoting strong grasses that would outcompete the wildflowers. Grazing with sheep is also more sustainable and cost effective than cutting the grass as it means that we do not need to use machinery as frequently.
The sheep help us to maintain our historical sites. We are lucky that we have many ancient monuments and features within the parks, including medieval villages. The sheep help us keep the grass down in these areas, meaning that we are less likely to damage the landscape and our shared heritage.
Lastly, the sheep provide us with a connection to our farming heritage. Until relatively recently Milton Keynes was largely fields used for farming. We continue this cultural heritage and believe that having livestock in our parks brings delight, understanding and connection to animals and farming.
Who looks after the sheep?
We work with our farming partner to look after our livestock. They are a very experienced farmer with a very high level of animal husbandry credentials. Our Ranger team and volunteers also keep an eye on our sheep.
How can you keep the sheep safe?
Keep dogs on leads – this is the biggest problem that we face in caring for all our livestock. We have plenty of parks where dogs can be off leads and roam, but we ask all dog owners to ensure their dogs are on a lead when they are entering fields used for grazing. Most of the incidents we have had have been caused when dog owners who regularly use a field assume that it will be empty or that they have not previously had any issues with the sheep. Sheep are moved regularly from one field to another as grass availability dictates, so part of a field that was empty just hours before may now have sheep on it. In terms of dogs and sheep interacting, both are animals and have animal instincts that can suddenly kick in. Sheep can accidently damage themselves when trying to flee, and every year a few sheep are injured or killed by dogs who are usually well tempered. Please ensure dogs are kept on a lead to avoid tragic incidents like this from occurring.
Observe from a distance – please don’t approach the sheep as it can spook them. Never chase them as this can lead to injury and heart failure.
Is having sheep environmentally sustainable?
Our sheep are predominately grass fed - they eat the grass found within the open fields over spring, summer and autumn and then eat the hay that we produce over the winter, only getting supplementary feeds when needed. The grass in our fields is not artificially fed with fertilisers and manure is only spread in sections of the Passenham fields.
We think this is an ethical way to farm and produce food for the food chain, rather than livestock being reared and kept by highly commercial methods. In such intensive farming animals are kept and fattened in industrial-scale units (e.g. indoor or outdoor pens), where livestock have little or no access to pasture and are fed grass alternatives. Although commercially run, the objective of our farming enterprise is not high profits. Our objective is to manage the land in a balanced way, that helps develop the ecology of the fields and its surrounding area using traditional grazing and farming methods.