This week saw the return to the renowned Schoonselhof cemetery in Antwerp of the finest lawn mowers known to Man: sheep.
The cemetery is located in the Hoboken district of Antwerp to the south-west of the centre, and also includes a Jewish and Islamic section, and a Commonwealth War Graves Commission site of 1,557 graves of Commonwealth citizens who died in the first and second world wars.
The cemetery also includes the graves of prominent Flemish figures including writers Hendrik Conscience and Willem Elsschot, poet Herman De Coninck, singer La Esterella, cartoonist Jef Nys and politician Hugo Schiltz.
The cemetery is laid out in an almost regular rectangular pattern, with waterways dividing the various sections, and it is on those eight kilometres of banks that the sheep, brought in from the heathland of the Kempen, will graze, keeping down grass growth.
Sheep, unlike the machine mowers than would otherwise be employed, create little disturbing noise, and fewer noisome emissions, the city explained.
Since Thursday, about 100 sheep have been brought in to graze the banks of the canals, but they will not be roaming free. The shepherd will cordon off one parcel of land for them, which they will tackle before moving on to the next.
This makes the job more efficient, while making sure the sheep get as little in the way as possible of the human visitors to the cemetery.
How long the job will take depends on the weather. So far this summer, rainfall has been high, which leads to more than usual growth of vegetation. Unless things change suddenly, the sheep may safely graze for some weeks yet.
According to the Antwerp city council, using sheep brings several advantages.
“They increase biodiversity and provide a varied herb layer along the canals. Non-native invasive plants or shrubs that overgrow the canal sides are pushed back. In addition, the animals do not damage the subsoil, which makes ecological and sustainable management possible,” the council said in a statement.
“The Schoonselhof is a place where many people come to mourn or reflect and like to seek out the silence,” said Els Van Doesburg, city councillor for city and neighbourhood maintenance.
“Maintenance work with machines can sometimes disrupt that peace. The grazing with the sheep is a sustainable way of ecologically managing the canal sides and the verges. The animals also attract extra visitors, who in this way get to know this beautiful and special cemetery in a different way.”