If you see a herd of sheep blithely grazing on Napoleon Hill in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park, don’t call the authorities. The 16 ewes and rams aren’t escapees from the zoo.

The animals play an important role in keeping the balance of nature favorable to indigenous flora and fauna in this urban expanse, officially called Ganei Yehoshua (Joshua Gardens, named for Yehoshua Rabinovich, a former mayor of Tel Aviv).

“This is a project of the municipality and the petting zoo in the park,” says landscape architect Liav Shalem, an ecologist with the Ganei Yehoshua Park Company and ecology adviser to the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality.

“In the past, grazing was part of the ecological system in this area and it stopped, so we brought it back in the spring of 2018,” Shalem tells ISRAEL21c.

The sheep eat the weeds and overgrown grasses that have crowded out more desirable plants. “They do an ecological selection by which we achieve spring blooming of plants we want to see, like anemones and irises,” says Shalem. Fortunately, the sheep don’t find flowers tasty.

The grazing also cuts down on the need for maintenance and reduces the risk of wildfires.

Sheep grazing in Ganei Yehoshua are herded by Asaf Gal and his border collies. Photo by Amit Sha’al

The herd lives in the petting zoo along with goats, chickens, peacocks, raccoons, geese, ferrets and more. Once a week, professional herdsman and Tel Aviv resident Asaf Gal leads the sheep to Napoleon Hill accompanied by his two border collies, Chaos and Fauda, to ensure the grazing is carefully controlled.

“Fauda,” name of a popular Israeli TV show, translates to “Chaos” in Arabic. The canine Chaos understands only Hebrew, while Fauda favors British English. Gal, a dog trainer, also communicates with the collies in whistles.

“Visitors really enjoy seeing the sheep. It’s very unique and picturesque, especially in a city of skyscrapers,” says Shalem.

“We also want to involve the community. We have a local agricultural school that visits and we want children in the area to have classes outside with the sheep. “

Shalem has introduced several ecological projects to Ganei Yehoshua in the hope of luring back indigenous vegetation and habitats, starting with the rich red lime soil in which the public is invited to plant flowers.

“We’ve started planting local trees, plants and flowers, like fig and strawberry. Local birds are attracted to these trees, and this helps us fight invasive species of birds like the myna crow that we see in the park. Bugs and butterflies can also enjoy this restored habitat,” Shalem explains.

Ganei Yehoshua is Tel Aviv’s largest park, spreading across 3,750 dunams (about 926 acres) sand including extensive lawns, botanical gardens, sports facilities, a lake with boats, outdoor concert venues, playgrounds and other attractions.

If the sheep initiative proves successful, Shalem wants to expand it to another 20 areas in Tel Aviv where he is working to restoring the natural landscape.

“Whenever I restore areas it’s important that people can access and enjoy nature while walking or biking. Nature areas in cities are very beneficial to health and relaxation,” Shalem says.