100 Things You Should Know About Daimler | #29

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Sheep among the stars

Preproduction models, prototypes, new technologies and drive systems. The Mercedes-Benz Testing and Technology Centre in Immendingen is an important link in the company’s chain of development and testing facilities. And for fans of automobiles and technology, this town in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg is a real El Dorado. But nature lovers also find what they’re looking for here — although at first glance no one would expect this town to be home to more than one king of the elves, as well as a shepherd and his four-footed flock. Of course, the kings of the elves are actually camouflaged prototype vehicles (“Erlkönigen” in German), but the sheep and the shepherd are real enough.

The Immendingen facility has a total area of 520 hectares, and features high-speed tracks, winding roads, a 4x4 module and much more. There are more than 30 test tracks that simulate a wide range of the road conditions that vehicles are subjected to in everyday driving.

A convoy of EQS vehicles, jam-packed with sensors and measuring technology, is humming softly as it makes its laps. In another part of the grounds, top-secret prototypes are drifting across wet asphalt surfaces. It’s actually just a typical day at the Immendingen Testing and Technology Centre — except for the nonstop baaing and bleating in the background. Here, in the green heartland of the grounds, a flock of sheep is peacefully grazing under the watchful eye of Alexander Zonta. That’s right — he’s the shepherd of Immendingen. He doesn’t carry a traditional shepherd’s crook, but he knows each one of his sheep by name.

That’s no easy achievement, because about 150 sheep are cavorting on the testing grounds’ meadows. But it may well have something to do with the special relationship between this man with his warm smile and the animals he cares for. It all began with the four sheep that Zonta adopted while he was studying to be a Waldorf school teacher. His hobby soon became a passion, and his group of four sheep became an impressive flock consisting of a broad spectrum of breeds and generations. The flock — but shouldn’t a flock of Mercedes sheep be called a portfolio? — includes small mouflons, several Cameroon and spectacled sheep, merinos, and tall wool sheep that can weigh as much as 90 kilograms.

Alexander Zonta, the shepherd of Immendingen.
Alexander Zonta, the shepherd of Immendingen.
The personal relationship with his animals is obvious.
The personal relationship with his animals is obvious.
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A paradise for wildlife in the traffic jungle

Five years ago, when Zonta was hired by the town of Immendingen to be perhaps the first shepherd at a vehicle testing centre, the flock consisted of 35 animals. Back then, Daimler was looking for an environmentally friendly alternative to the conventional concept of lawn care. And it was clear from the very start that this would be a long-term project rather than a short experiment. The trial period lasted a year, and the project was always closely supervised by experts for flora and fauna. They were ultimately convinced by the way Zonta handled his flock and the benefits that the animals generated for the natural environment.

Today these organic lawnmowers on four legs are taking care of 15 hectares of land. They are significantly more cost-effective than their motorized counterparts, and they don’t hesitate to nibble on bushes and shrubs as well. That protects this valuable rough grassland and safeguards plant diversity. Sustainability and environmental awareness are top priorities in Immendingen on principle. The Daimler sheep are only one of the company’s many nature protection measures. For example, for every hectare of ground that is used by the company, two hectares are reforested. Several bridges and tunnels for wildlife form a corridor that runs right through the middle of the testing grounds. For a long time now, lynxes, owls, raccoons, foxes and many other species have made the area a genuine paradise for wild animals. According to reports, wolves also roam through the surrounding forests. But Zonta’s sheep have no need to fear. The flock in Immendingen includes llamas that are as tall as a man, and their imposing appearance scares all predators away.

The flockincludes llamas that are as tall as a man.
The flockincludes llamas that are as tall as a man.
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Elf and his descendants

The size of the flock has more than quadrupled within five years to a total of 150 animals. That’s mainly due to Elf, a purebred mouflon with impressive horns. He’s the breeding ram of the flock and the proud father of approximately 100 animals. By means of this woolly patriarch, Zonta wants to reinstate a way of life that is natural and healthier for the animals as well as the environment. Mouflon sheep are smaller and lighter on their feet than their intensively bred descendants. That’s better for the soil — and also for the physical build of the sheep. In addition, mouflon sheep are extremely easy to care for. They renew their woolly coats naturally, so there’s no need to do any time-consuming shearing and grooming of their fleece. Anyhow, their wool is secondary. The purpose of these sheep is to be contented and to take care of the meadows. “Happy sheep graze well,” says Zonta.

Elf and his fellow mouflons don’t need to be sheared, but the wool sheep have a different fate. Of course they too can lead contented lives and be certain that they will be regularly sheared, but over the long term their breed will disappear from the flock. Their descendants are hybrids. Unlike hybrid automobiles, which are powered by a combination of conventional and electric drive systems, hybrid sheep are the result of crossing different breeds. In this case, mouflons have been crossed with merino, Cameroon or spectacled sheep. And with every newborn lamb, the evolutionary history of the sheep is reversed by one generation.

The breeding ram "Elf". The name is said to come from its elf-like appearance at a young age. He now has seven of them under his belt and still keeps the sheep ladies on their toes.
The breeding ram "Elf". The name is said to come from its elf-like appearance at a young age. He now has seven of them under his belt and still keeps the sheep ladies on their toes.

While the engineers in Immendingen shape the mobility of tomorrow, Zonta and his sheep are driving development in the opposite direction. However, it’s clear that the flock has also undergone several facelifts since the Immendingen Testing Centre started operation. Today the flock already includes young animals that represent the fifth generation. It will take some time before the flock consists entirely of the original breed of wild sheep. Zonta expects at least ten years to go by before the Testing Centre’s meadows are populated exclusively by purebred mouflons.

He’s not sure whether he’ll be swinging his imaginary shepherd’s crook that long. But there’s no need to worry about the sheep of Immendingen — Zonta already has a designated successor. He’s 14-year-old Noel, who spends every free minute with the animals and actively helps with everything from shearing to building fences. At some point in the future, he wants to follow in Zonta’s footsteps. That’s exactly what the developers in Immendingen are like — the way they think is sustainable and future-oriented.

Dominik Grill

Always found four wheels more interesting than four-legged friends. He was all the more enthusiastic about paying a visit to the Immendingen testing and technology center. But that the fur animals would steal the show from the engineers and their motorized sheep - nobody could have expected that!

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