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.
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)
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:
3. UGA Today
5. Eco goats
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