Many people believe sheep on steep hill country farms don't affect the water quality of streams – but that's not quite the case, says animal behaviour scientist Dr Lindsay Matthews.
It's great that gullies and steep hillsides have been planted with trees to help stabilise the ground, slow nutrient runoff and protect the streams, but these lovely environments have become a magnet for stock seeking shade or security, and, of course, a place to poo (and thereby spread E-coli and pathogens).
Over the hot summer, sheep have even been seen standing in water to cool down – not something people knew sheep did, Dr Matthews says.
Yet it's not practical to fence off all waterways so he and other researchers are hoping to find ways to attract sheep to settle down on other parts of the farm "to spread their impact on the landscape."
Planting trees will be one solution, but Dr Matthews says they're also hoping to investigate other novel ideas.
Scientists also need to figure out how far away from streams and gullies sheep need to be and for how long.
"We're not looking at 100% getting them out of the streams ... but we don't know what proportion of time they have to be in safe areas [where poo won't reach the stream] compared with the risky areas."
If the research gets approved they should have some solutions within three years, he says.