The accidental shepherd

A Belmont dog trainer brought her sheep and goats to town, benefiting everyone

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By Natalie Southwick
Globe Correspondent / June 11, 2011

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The introduction of new neighbors is often fraught with anxiety, particularly in a neighborhood like Belmont Hill. That process becomes even more uncertain when none of the new residents walk on two legs.

Last summer, nine sheep and five goats moved into a prime spot of Belmont real estate — a location their owner fittingly calls Far Fetch Farm. The livestock are the result of a partnership between Mass Audubon’s Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary and Belmont resident and dog trainer Liz Shaw. Shaw brought the animals to town last June and has kept them on Habitat land, where the sanctuary is using them to experiment with natural grasslands management and as part of their nature education programming.

“It’s a wonderful collaboration,’’ says Shaw. “I take care of the animals, they get the benefit of grazing, and I get grazing land for my animals. It’s been a mutually beneficial thing.’’

In a living arrangement many humans would envy, the animals — a collection of Romney, Finn, Border Cheviot and Baby Doll Southdown sheep and tiny Nigerian Dwarf goats, which stand under 2 feet tall — have lived rent-free on Habitat property for a year, in exchange for their employment as weeders.

“It’s been a real addition to the sanctuary to have animals back,’’ said Roger Wrubel, Habitat’s sanctuary director. “The land was pasture 100 years ago, and now it is again.’’

Shaw brought several of the original sheep from a farm in Carlisle, where she shared ownership with friends, then added more sheep and goats throughout the year. The flock has now expanded to 12 sheep, including a lamb, Huckleberry Finn, born on March 9. In October, Shaw and Habitat applied for a permit from the town of Belmont to keep the livestock there year round.

“We worked with the town to have them on a trial basis, to see how people felt about them,’’ says Shaw. Though the initial permit was only for one year, Shaw expects it will be renewed for a longer time period.

“We’re still figuring out how much they can eat, how much is effective, how often do we move them — we’re really working that out this year,’’ she says.

The sheep and goats’ permanent residence is a 2.5-acre field next to Weeks Pond, enclosed by fencing and electric netting to protect them from passing dogs or coyotes. During the warm weather, the animals and their portable sheds migrate from one overgrown section of land to another. The grazers recently moved to a section of the property close to Concord Avenue, where they and their enclosure will rotate around the field, wreaking havoc upon weeds.

“You put the sheep out in an overgrown area of bittersweet, and they’re so excited, they run around — like, ‘Woohoo! Bittersweet!’ ’’ says Shaw. “It’s hilarious. I’ve never seen sheep and goats get so excited about being put out to pasture.’’ Sheep and goats prefer to eat leafy or woody plants before grass, explains Shaw, which makes them natural weeders. They chow down on the invasive multiflora rose or glossy buckthorn, allowing more sunlight to reach the grasses below and deterring the invasives from returning.

“They’re going to stress the [invasives], so that you end up changing the ecology of the field, and it’ll get grassier over time,’’ says Shaw. “That area had a ton of poison ivy, and I didn’t get poison ivy once this summer, because they just decimated it.’’

When they’re not clearing undergrowth, Shaw uses the animals to train her newest dog, Rose — a 3 1/2-year-old border collie adopted from a rescue shelter. Shaw, who co-owns City Dog Training in Somerville, enjoys the contrast between her two jobs.

“I’m sort of like [the television show] ‘Green Acres,’ ’’ she explains. “The husband liked the farm, the wife liked the city — I’m both.’’

Shaw has been training Rose since she adopted her in 2009, and says the sheep and goats have been integral to the difficult process. While she has worked with shelter dogs for many years, she says training a border collie to herd is a unique challenge that requires different skills from more basic dog training.

“You can never predict what the sheep are going to do,’’ she says. “You’re keeping your eye on the sheep, the dog, the environment. . . . For me, it’s a huge learning process.’’

In addition to dog training techniques, Shaw says she has also learned about New England flora since bringing the sheep and goats to Habitat — even just to understand the animals’ names.

Most are named after plants found on Habitat property. The sheep take their names from native New England plants, such as Black-eyed Susan and Winterberry, while the goats personify the invasive and nuisance species they are there to get rid of, like Autumn Olive and Virginia Creeper. To simplify things, Shaw and the Habitat staff have assigned nicknames to most of the goats; Purple Loosestrife, for example, is called Lucy.

Shaw says most residents have come to see the livestock as part of the landscape, just like the plants for which they are named.

“The animals are very well received,’’ she says. “I’m surprised at how many people come by to see them. I think it’s sort of a bit of quiet in urban life for them.’’

Shaw says that locals have begun to recognize her around town. During the winter, a couple in the Belmont Center Starbucks stopped Shaw to tell her that they often passed by the enclosure, and that they thought the sheep looked hungry.

“It’s a funny thing to have in the middle of Belmont,’’ says Shaw. “If anyone had told me that I was going to end up with sheep and goats 4,000 feet from my house in Belmont, I would’ve laughed.’’

Natalie Southwick can be reached at