Grazing Goats and Sheep Help Uncover Historic Headstones in Ireland

The herbivores snacked on plant overgrowth at an 18th-century graveyard in Cork County, revealing long-hidden burial markers

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Two female sheep named Dilly and Dolly, as well as two unnamed lambs, helped with the project. Templebreedy Save Our Steeple

Uncovering graves buried by centuries of plant growth is hard work—for humans, at least. For sheep, it’s actually a tasty task. That’s why volunteers at a church in Ireland have brought in the herbivores to help with historical conservation work.

As BBC News reports, the sheep are clearing an overgrown graveyard by St. Matthew’s Church in the Cork County parish of Templebreedy.

“They are helping to bring a forgotten history back to the fore,” Cork County Councilor Audrey Buckley tells BBC News.

The Templebreedy Save Our Steeple committee, which aims to preserve the historic site and connect it to the local community today, is spearheading efforts to recover the graves. St. Matthew’s was built in 1788 and has since fallen into ruin. A different church stood at the site before St. Matthew’s, and the grounds’ earliest grave dates back to 1711.

The sheep aren’t the first grazing creatures to help out with the project. Last summer, four goats were recruited to munch on overgrowth around the old headstones. As Buckley told the Irish Times’ Olivia Kelleher last May, she learned about “goatscaping” on a visit to Wales, where goats and sheep often help clear unwanted vegetation from churchyards. The animals can remove weeds in a more environmentally friendly way than power trimmers while presenting less danger to fragile tombstones.

Grazing Goats and Sheep Help Uncover Historic Headstones in Ireland
The sheep are helping to reveal centuries-old headstones. Templebreedy Save Our Steeple

According to Buckley, the goatscaping got off to a slow start after the first two animals arrived.

“Harris and Oscar were just chilling out and not doing much because everyone was bringing apples to them,” she told the Times.

To get the project back on track, organizers added two more goats and encouraged local children to cut brambles and ivy for the animals rather than bringing them outside treats.

One year after the goats gobbled up layers of vines and brush, the sheep got their turn to clear the grass around the headstones. Kieran O’Mahony of the Southern Star reports that a local woman loaned the team two female sheep, Dolly and Dilly, and two unnamed lambs.

Thanks in part to the animals’ work, the committee has registered more than 400 headstones in the old cemetery. Among the discoveries was the grave of a 2-year-old girl who died on October 7, 1872. The rediscovered headstone reads, “Maria Kate Russel, Aged 2 yrs, 5 months and 15 days. Her father, Crp. George Russel, Royal Engineers, Camden Fort Meagher, was present when she passed.”

Per RTÉ, the committee was able to get in touch with the young girl’s grandnephew.

“He had been trying to find information on her and had planned to come over from the U.K. last year but had to cancel due to Covid,” Buckley says. “He is thrilled and plans to visit as soon as he can. He is so thankful to all involved.”

Grazing Goats and Sheep Help Uncover Historic Headstones in Ireland
The sheep snacked on plant overgrowth at the St. Matthew's Church cemetery. Templebreedy Save Our Steeple

Organizers say they’ve been able to locate three or four other living people with connections to some of the rediscovered graves. Along with crafted headstones, the sheep have helped uncover boulders, which were used as grave markers by people who couldn’t afford headstones.

Cork City Council donated temporary fences to keep the animals in specific areas of the graveyard. About 12 core volunteers help manage the project, but Buckley tells RTÉ that moving the four sheep from one part of the cemetery to another sometimes demands extra people power.

“On Sheep Move night every week we grab wives, siblings, etc.,” she says. “We even grab walkers that are passing if we are stuck for help.”

The volunteers are working with Irish Heritage Trust to determine next steps for the project.

“We want to know how best we can maintain and sustain what we have done, and how we can preserve it and use it, especially to educate a younger generation,” Buckley tells BBC News. “I’ve lived here for more than 50 years and it’s a history that I didn't know about, that I'm only now getting a sense of because of all the hard work of the volunteers. It's important we do what we can to pass that on.”