Goats Used in Ecological Restoration

Goats at Pennypack.  © Beatriz Moisset. 2013

Goats at Pennypack
© Beatriz Moisset. 2013

I frequently visit the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust  just north of Philadelphia. When the trust was created in the seventies the 800 acres were mostly farm land; but restoration efforts have returned much of the native vegetation. Needless to say, the war against invasive plants goes on to this day. Last November, I was walking with a friend, enjoying the sunny fall weather, when we run into a brigade of unusual weed killers, four goats surrounded by an electrified fence. They were merrily munching away brambles, multiflora roses, and, oh joy, poison ivy!

Their caretakers were putting the final touches on the fence and posting signs alerting visitors about the electrified wires. We took advantage of the opportunity to ask the many questions that were popping into our heads about the unusual sight. Fortunately, they were eager to supply information about the use of goats in the restoration program. Until now, I knew goats as invasive species that can damage ecosystems, primarily on islands. I knew about the efforts to get rid of these unwelcome pests on the Galapagos and on Catalina Island, California. I was pleased to learn that they can also be used for ecological restoration.

The young men told us that this sort of program has been in use for several years, mostly in the West with satisfactory results. The practice continues to spread to other areas. So Pennypack’s authorities decided to hire these four legged workers. If these animals do a good job, they will become permanent members of the staff.

The four goats arrived last Easter and were put to work a month later, after a period of habituation to their new surroundings. Since then until November they had been doing their weeding in secluded areas out of sight of visitors. This was their first day in a more visible place by the main trail. It is the visitors’ turn to become used to the goats’ presence and to learn about their role in restoration of native vegetation.

Everyday, these living weeding machines are brought to a patch in need of clearing and left there until dark. They may need more than one day to finish the job. After that, they are gradually moved to other patches. The goats spend the night in a roofed shelter safe from coyotes. I was surprised to learn that coyotes can be found in our suburban area, not far from Philadelphia.

Before and after © Beatriz Moisset. 2013

Before and after
© Beatriz Moisset. 2013

I returned four days later to inspect the progress. The enclosure had been moved a short distance from that of the first day. The happy animals were busily chomping away at brambles and vines. I could see that they had disposed of a significant amount of tangled vegetation in the original spot. Sadly, they had also stripped the bark from some tree branches. They are not to blame for being so indiscriminate. It is the human handlers’ responsibility to protect valuable native plants from them.

The plan is to grow native vegetation on the areas cleared by the goats. This method beats using herbicides. It also beats using human workers, especially when poison ivy is abundant or when the mats of vegetation are impenetrable.

I was anxious to find out more about the practice of using goats in ecological restoration. I soon learned that goats are in use in several other places in the Philadelphia area: Morris Arboretum, Longwood Gardens, and the Wissahickon Valley Park. Beyond, goats are used to remove invasive plants in many places from California to Staten Island. The method works best on large areas, such as meadows and prairies. But goats have also been used on plots as small as 12 x 60 foot, no bigger than an ordinary backyard.

Needless to say these living weed removers require more care than machinery and have to be prevented from attacking desirable plants. Restoration by goats is still an art as much as a science. Work on each new site brings additional information on the pros and cons of working with goats.

Goats have proved their worth in the control of the following invasive plants:

+ Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) (1)

+ English ivy (Hedera helix) (2)

+ Privet (Ligustrum) (3)

+ Leafy spurge (Euphorbia esula) (4)

+ Spotted Knapweed (Centaurea maculosa) (4)

+ Musk thistle (Cardus) (4)

+ Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) (1)

+ Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) (5)

+ Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) (5)

+ Kudzu (Pueraria) (6)

+ Salt cedar (Tamarix ramosissima) (7)

+ Common reed (Phragmites) (8)

Disappointingly, they refuse to eat another insidious invasive, mile-a-minute (Persicaria perfoliata) (1)

 

Tangled vegetation waiting to be eaten by goats.  © Beatriz Moisset. 2013

Tangled vegetation waiting to be eaten by goats
© Beatriz Moisset. 2013

It is heartwarming to see this animal, a symbol of ecological degradation, become a valuable tool of ecosystem restoration.

 

You can read more on the subject here:

1. Final Report Conservation Goat Grazing for Invasive Species in the Hudson Valley

2. Washington State University Extension

3. UGA Today

4.  Utah State University Extension

5. Eco goats

6. New York Times

7. USDA Research

8. New York Times

© 2013, Beatriz Moisset. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Wonderful post Beatriz! For years folks have suggested to me that I should get goats, but I have always said they would get away somehow and eat everything. If I could find someone to manage them for me, this could be great. If they would eat bishop’s weed that is! Bittersweet is nearly as bad a problem here too . . . so just having them to control that would be great. I do everything by hand around rocks or I have it done these days. I would just worry about all the valued insects or even nests that might be in any given area and the wildflowers. I suppose if this were done seasonally it could work well. The goats would have to keep coming back . . . for one, two or even three grazings would not kill the pernicious invasives. I love goats cheese and never thought of what a cheese from goats eating these plants might taste like. I know their diet would be more varied but what a good cause . . . the cheese might be named after the clearing of invasives. I so enjoyed this article!!
    Carol Duke recently posted..Flower Hill Farm Butterflies of 2012 ~ Viceroy and Common Buckeye

    • says

      Although this may be a good idea in some ways it must be monitored. As an professional ecologist with 30 years of experience I have learned that grazing an area has both good and bad results. The good news as the goats, and other grazing animals, are cost effective and do not leave behind residual chemicals (think Roundup). They also are gentle on topography and do little disturbance. The bad news is that they are not selective and will ear natives and non-natives alike. Further if they chew off a plant that can propagate by colonial root production it can actually add to numbers of invasive plants. Of course, this can be avoided by letting the goats eat away until the invasive species runs out of total energy so that it can no longer produce colonizing roots.

      All in all a method worth considering but it requires both management and knowledge to make sure that not more harm is done than good.

      Nice article, I liked it!
      WildBill recently posted..Dog Days, Beach Days, Any Day is a Good Day

  2. says

    Excellent post Beatriz! We have many groups using goats in the Seattle area to combat the extreme invasive problems we have here. Himalayan Blackberry, Scots Broom, English Ivy. But I would also worry about management in areas next to native species. It would work well in complete infestations though. Do you know if poison ivy is native in U.S? Always wondered. We don’t have it out here, thank goodness.

    • James C. Trager says

      Yes, Janet, Poison ivy and several closely related species are “all-American” native plants. Indeed, two of the species in its genus, Toxicodendron, are reported from Washington state, even if they don’t occur around Seattle. Their foliage, fruits and nectar provide food resources to many native organisms ranging from tiny mites to mammals. It also produces very beautiful fall color. Still, it is best avoided by most people. The rash associated with poison ivy dermatitis ranges from minor, but unpleasant to severe and dangerous, depending on level of exposure and individuals sensitivity to the toxic compound urushiol.

  3. Caroline Lawson says

    After 2 devastating fires in the woods along the Rio, Grande the City of Albuquerque started using goats to clear out the scrub that feeds these fires. So far, so good.

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  1. [...] Their caretakers were putting the final touches on the fence and posting signs alerting visitors about the electrified wires. We took advantage of the opportunity to ask the many questions that were popping into our heads about the unusual sight. Fortunately, they were eager to supply information about the use of goats in the restoration program.Until now, I knew goats as invasive species that can damage ecosystems, primarily on islands. I knew about the efforts to get rid of these unwelcome pests on the Galapagos and on Catalina Island, California. I was pleased to learn that they can also be used for ecological restoration.  [...]

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