Nantucket’s Green Grazers

Thirty miles off the coast of Massachusetts is a modest little island with a talent for attracting the glitterati. Once a seafaring capital that prospered by strip-mining the global whale community, the island today is an ultra-chic summer destination for the affluent, with private jets lining the airport tarmac and one-bedroom shacks selling for half a million dollars.

Though the island’s economy is thriving, its unique environment is threatened. "Eighty percent of the coastal heath and sandplain grassland left in the world is on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, and it’s endangered," explains Bruce Perry, property manager for the 2,200 acres held by the Nantucket Land Bank. Ernie Steinauer, director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society on Nantucket, adds that the island "probably has the world’s largest and best remaining examples—and we don’t want to lose them."

The grasslands support a variety of rare plant and bird species. "This is one of the few places in the Northeast where you can still find the Northern harrier and short-eared owl, and plant species such as the bushy rockrose and Saint Andrews" cross," says Karen Beattie, ecologist with the Nantucket Conservation Foundation (which has acquired 8,700 acres since its inception in 1963).

Ironically, Nantucket’s threatened grasslands are man-made, produced by overgrazing and tree removal following European settlement. Today, Steinauer explains, they’ve either been developed or invaded by pitch pine and scrub oak. Working with Victoria Harvey and Taffy Palenski, Steinauer developed a plan to use a flock of Romney sheep from the Audubon Society’s Lincoln, Massachusetts herd to graze the grasslands back to optimum balance.

The trio is now raising and shearing the flock of 10 sheep through a new business called Nantucket Wool, and are gearing up to launch a hand-knit clothing line. Next year, the partners anticipate enough breeding-age ewes to justify bringing a ram over for a short but feisty visit.

The partners hope to recoup expenses through the fledgling wool business. There are heftier fiscal challenges looming, however, including fundraising for a new barn, which is a necessity given Nantucket’s famous Nor"easters. Other groups on the island are watching with interest. "The sheep program is a pilot, to see if it’s a viable option for large-scale land management," says Beattie.

There’s no vocal opposition to the sheep plan, but not everyone is convinced it will work. Chris Holland, director of the Partnership for Harrier Habitat Preservation, says the partnership considered the idea, but it was deemed unfeasible because of high costs. "Also, the sheep are liable to be killed by dogs and people have to be out there 24/7," he says.

Throughout the island’s long and colorful history, entrepreneurial zeal has often had disastrous results. The grazing project might very well prove different.