Dear Readers, this year we will (fingers crossed) be going back to Obergurgl in Austria, one of the loveliest spots in the world. Before the pandemic we used to visit every single year for the chance to walk in the mountains amongst the spring flowers, but clearly that hasn’t been possible for a while. However today, I wanted to talk about sheep. These lovely creatures are Tyrolean sheep, and every year they’re walked over the Alpine passes to graze on the lush meadows of the Oetz valley. They often have their lambs here, and so when they go home in the autumn there are lots of gangly adolescent sheep following along. It has been this way for a long time (there are the remains of sheep pens from about 6,500 years ago), but as we all know the climate is changing, and increasingly I’m seeing sheep who are far too hot. When you get the cable car up to the Hohe Mut ( a very fine ‘hut’ with panoramic views over the nearby valleys), all the sheep are clustered together in the shade of the cable car machinery and the chalet. On the mountain valleys themselves, the sheep will often follow what shade there is, and you can often find them huddled in the lee of a large rock, there being no trees to speak of.
So it was with some interest that I read about this study on the effects of putting solar panels in grazing fields. In spite of what Liz Truss seemed to think (who was she again?), sheep appear to love solar panels, particularly for the shade that they provide, but also because the grass that grows near to them is particularly nutritious – it’s shaded from the worst effects of the sun, and benefits from rain running off from the panels themselves. This most recent study, led by Emma Kampherbeek while working at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, showed that the sheep spent up to 70% of their time under the solar panels, and grazed for 8% more time than sheep in fields with no panels. Furthermore, the sheep eat any weeds that grow on the panels and, unlike goats, they don’t nibble at the cables (which can only be a good thing).
Kampherbeek suggests that solar panels in fields should always be planned with a partner animal in mind – what a great idea! It feels to me as if this is an idea that could benefit both nature, the farmer, the animals and help to reduce climate change all in one go. I shall be keeping an eye on future developments.