What happened to the sheep of Central Park?

The idea to bring sheep into Central Park originated with Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux back in the early 1860s.

The two brilliant co-designers of the city’s first major green space wanted part of the landscape to feel pastoral and serene. Having a flock of sheep roaming around, they reasoned, would give the area a romantic, English countryside-like feel, according to NYC Parks.

And of course, the sheep would cut the grass — a nice side benefit in an era before motorized lawn mowers.

So in 1864, about 200 pedigreed English sheep were moved into the newly opened park, their grazing ground appropriately renamed Sheep Meadow.

Jacob Wray Mould, who designed many of Central Park’s loveliest structures as well as the carvings along Bethesda Terrace, built a Victorian-style sheepfold near West 64th Street (at right, in 1884) that housed the flock at night as well as a human shepherd and his family.

For decades, the sheep shared the park with people.

They left their fold at 5:30 a.m. and returning at half past six in the evening, with the help of a sheepdog assistant named (of course!) Shep, reported the children’s magazine St. Nicholas in 1884.

“Twice a day, the shepherd would disrupt traffic (first carriage, then car) while herding the sheep over a crossing, towards the meadow,” wrote Modern Farmer in 2014.

“With the exception of those who were delayed, most considered the sheep a pleasant spectacle to behold.”

The beginning of the end of the sheep came with the appointment of Robert Moses as Parks Commissioner.

He altered Central Park by building playgrounds and ball fields — and in 1934 decided the sheep had to go.

For one, Moses wanted to make the Victorian-style sheepfold a restaurant (it later became Tavern on the Green, at right).

But his decision also had to do with the Great Depression and the very real fear that desperate New Yorkers (some of whom moved into the park in a row of shacks nicknamed Hooverville) might turn the sheep into lamb stew.

So the 49 remaining sheep were dispatched to join another flock (above, around 1900) in Prospect Park.

There, they grazed in the Long Meadow before being moved again, permanently — this time to the Catskills.

[Top photo: LOC; second photo: Wikipedia; third and fourth images: St. Nicholas Magazine; sixth photo: MCNY; 93.91.391]

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13 Responses to “What happened to the sheep of Central Park?”

  1. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    Seems like every historic generation hinks ‘sheep on the lawn’ would make a charming setting. Marie Antoinette, costumed as a shepherdess, flounced around her fluffy flock. Marie had several failing ideas.

    Sheep generally don’t just nibble blades of grass — they nosh so much of the plant, it is simply not trimmed – but devoured! (The Old Frontier Cattlemen – with graze’n beef – hated Sheep almost as much as they hated barbed-wire. Start pay’n attention to those B&W Westerns broadcast on TCM.)

    President Woodrow Wilson acquired sheep as 4-legged mowers for the White House lawn during 1918. (Their wool was auctioned for the WWI Red Cross.) The critters caused all kinds of landscape mishaps – damaging small trees; destroying flower beds; becoming startled at the vehicle-traffic-noises ‘n running around the property; plus, they got sick. The wooly beasts were proven to be a BA-A-A-A-A-D-D-D-D idea; so even without Robert Moses on the scene, the President counted-out the sheep and slept well.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks Audrey. Sounds like Moses wasn’t sentimental about these woolly creatures … just as he wasn’t sentimental about New York’s old neighborhoods. There would be no Soho if he had his way back in the 1960s!

    • Sara Perry Says:

      Audrey, your assessment is kind of bleak sounding. Having been a sheep owner I would like to submit that they are actually a very wonderful addition to a small acreage. There is no need to maintain more sheep than the pasture can support and techniques of rotational grazing are well practiced these days. Sheep are quite easy to keep. Their poop comes in pellet form (like rabbits) with minimal smell and is very beneficial to the ground, they easily get used to their surroundings, are seldom sick (sorry to contradict) when properly cared for and their care is really quite minimal. Many breeds are very hardy and assuming a bi-yearly hoof clipping, a yearly shearing (which would be a very fun public spectacle!) and vet check, and a good diet and water they are easy keepers. And if they were bred, the spring lambs would be such a fun thing for New Yorkers to enjoy visiting. I vote we bring them back – along with the shepherd and Shep!

  2. ashleyfudd@aol.com Says:

    You know all this, except for the dog named Shep (at least I didn’t know that part anyway)

    Ashley Alderfer-Kaufman


  3. Sue J. Says:

    You bought the ole “they’re now in the Catskills” line?

  4. Miguel Hernandez Says:

    Some cemeteries out in California are now using goats to trim the grass. They also eat paper and other litter Washington DC’ Congressional Cemeteries aso use them and so does Chicago’s O Hare airport where in addition to grass mowing dutieds the keep geese away from the runways.

  5. Thou Shalt Remember – Idlers Says:

    […] overly mannered TV shows. The sight of green, rolling hills and lonely stands of trees—and sheep, actual, live sheep—was more than an effective symbol for the idyllic: it was sight of memory for times of real, […]

  6. How a “Ladies Pavilion” ended up in Central Park | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] by Jacob Wray Mould, the architect behind many park structures, the pavilion fits in well with the Victorian style of nearby bridges and […]

  7. Mitchel Cohen Says:

    The 1864 picture. Aren’t the buildings too tall for that time? Are you sure that photo of sheep and NYC buildings was taken in 1864?

  8. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Right, the photo is from the 1930s; there’s no photo/image from 1864 but one illustration from 1884

  9. Mark Budka Says:

    Once in awhile, New York City endears itself to this Nebraskan. Sheep in Central Park, goats in Brooklyn and cows loose Queens. What would I think if there were deer, wolves, coyotes, mountain lions . . . I do live in a city . . . these latter can show up. I love raccoon, woodchuck, skunk, opossum. They get into everything! Animals make life interesting. So do humans. I might break my rule of never going to New York again. Barstool Pizza in Brooklyn has a picture online of a guy holding a goat kid while eating pizza. Hmm?

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