By now, almost everyone’s heard of using goats to clear unwanted weeds. It’s popular enough in Northwest precincts to have spawned a friendly lampoon by Pemco insurance:
Yet goats are a lot more than a lifestyle choice in a quirky region. Local and regional governments are, of course, responsible for managing their own properties, such as parks, playgrounds, and schoolyards. Faced with reduced funding but increased responsibilities in a troubled economy, some governments have seized on goats as an organic way to remove noxious weeds without using toxic chemicals. Goats can remove weeds from the toughest spots, such as steep slopes where pulling by hand may be impractical, or river areas where required buffer zones may forbid herbicide applications. Best of all, there’s some evidence that goats are not just effective but also cost-efficient: they don’t just clear weeds, they save money too.
Scientists from the University of Northern British Columbia partnered with their home city government in Prince George to test two organic methods, acetic acid (vinegar) and goats, to control the noxious weed Canada thistle. The two-year study determined that either method succeeded in controlling thistle, and either method is as cost effective as chemical herbicides, while posing fewer concerns over impacts on human and ecosystem health. The study results were published in a scientific journal in 2009, summarized here; and reported on Canadian television.
In both urban and rural settings, Northwest goat success stories abound:
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- The Peace River Regional District in northern British Columbia rented 500 goats to control the noxious invasive weed Dalmatian toadflax in the city of Fort St. John. The goats consumed a patch of weeds located on a steep bank of the Peace River, where herbicides are to be avoided and hand-pulling is not practical.
- The city of Wilsonville, Oregon hires about 450 goats to clear invasive weeds from city parks and green spaces. Wilsonville sponsors a Goat Appreciation Day each year before the herd leaves, allowing members of the public and their children to pet the goats and learn of their role in land management.
- The Central Oregon Irrigation District used goats to clear noxious weeds, and Bend Municipal Airport also used goats to clear land.
- In King County, Washington, goats have been hired to clear brush at a Metro bus depot in Bellevue. Meanwhile Seattle Parks and Recreation has employed goats, and Seattle City Light hires goats to remove blackberry brambles and other brush from electrical substations.
- Boise hired about 600 goats to clear weeds from public lands in the northwest foothills, and the effort was successful enough that the city expects to rent goats in the future.
- The Blaine County Recreation District in Idaho reached agreement to use about 700 goats as an alternative to herbicides in a three-year pilot project to clear knapweed from public parks along a pedestrian and bicycle path that stretches the length of the Wood River Valley.
It’s no wonder that so many places are turning to goats. Like most of North America, the Northwest has a real problem with invasive plant species, sometimes called “noxious weeds.” Such weeds can be transported beyond their native habitats through international commerce, or sometimes are introduced intentionally, as with ornamental plants for garden use. Once these weeds are removed from the wildlife and other natural controls of their native habitats, they may grow unchecked, in the process threatening ecosystems, their new habitats, agriculture and domesticated animals, and at times, even human health. A typical example is English ivy, native to Europe and western Asia but introduced elsewhere as an ornamental. Oregon and Washington State each designated this species noxious, because it chokes out other plants and can overwhelm trees. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedera_helix In fact, climate change is likely to make the region’s weed problem worse: warmer summers and winters can make it easier for non-native weeds to gain a foothold and spread.
The secret to goats’ success is their biology. They are browsers, not grazers, which means they eat brush, leaves, twigs, and other foods before grass. They leave plant stalks, which hold the soil in place, preventing erosion. And while, contrary to folklore, goats do not actually eat tin cans, they are remarkably omnivorous; they’ll munch the paper labels from cans, while thistles and thorns, such as those in blackberry brambles, do not seem to faze them. In addition, goats destroy seeds by grinding them with their molars, while their stomach acids can prevent weed seeds from germinating.
Goats are likely not a silver bullet to the Northwest’s invasive weed problems, but they are a promising way for land managers to save money, conserve resources, and reduce the use of hazardous toxic chemicals. You might even say that local and regional governments can use goats to “make sustaina-billy legal.”
John Abbotts is a former Sightline research consultant, who occasionally submits material that Sightline staff turn into blog posts. Inspiration for the title of this post came from the Ashland Daily Tidings, here.
Jon Cecil, AICP
By all accounts the trial use of goats in the Boise Foothills in 2011 was a great success and one that will be repeated in the future. See http://www.ktvb.com/home/600-goats-take-over-the-foothills–125911908.html
Matt the Engineer
Not to mention this tragic accident in Seattle a few years ago. I assume brush-clearing goats haven’t trampled anyone yet.
Thanks for the positive feedback.
Matt’s comment sent me back to the internet. I should confess my own ignorance of goat behavior. For this post, I found a couple of examples of billies clearing weeds in each of the states/province that lie completely within Cascadia. From all of those examples, I saw no cases of goats harming people.
But several articles left the impression that rented goats are often supervised. Dogs herd them, and also deter predators. Their owners have to keep them away from weeds that are poisonous. And for events such as Goat Day in Wilsonville, I’m guessing that their owners would be around to head off any trouble.
But I did find one case where humans were the greater threat, stealing a goat clearing weeds in Portland, at http://www.oregonlive.com/portland/index.ssf/2011/08/update_goats_owner_disappointe.html
Even then, the thieves may have felt like the “dog who catches the car.” Goats butt heads to establish dominance, and there are videos on YouTube of goats attacking people. And, if you catch a goat, you have to feed it, or it might turn its horns on you. This might explain why when police investigated in Portland, they found the “stolen” goat roaming the streets.
Thanks again for your comments and interest.
In the CA Sierra foothills area, they have long used goats and grazing sheep for clearing purposes. You can see them in various residential and commercial areas along I-80 from Sacramento all the way to Tahoe. They have proven to be a wonderful alternative – both environmentally and economically.
Jorgy in PDX
Do they eat Scot’s broom?
Nice post, John. But I’m guessing one limitation in the use of goats to clear weeds/invasives is that they don’t discriminate between the undesirable plants (weeds) and the desirable ones (natives)? Even under supervision, I imagine it must be hard to keep track of what each goat is eating….unless, of course, there’s one supervisor per goat…
Thanks again for the positive feedback.
I did a search on Jorgy’s question, and found web pages reporting that goats will eat Scotch broom (I’m guessing that is the same weed).
On Naill’s comment, I went back to Wikipedia, which tells me that goats prefer shrubbery and weeds over grasses. I also found a goat renter’s page, which advised that desirable plants can be wrapped or fenced off from goats beforehand; and/or the goats can be controlled in their roaming by surrounding them in three dimensions with an electric fence.
But please see my comment above, admitting my ignorance about goat behavior. Folks with more questions about goat diets or control would get better answers by doing their own web searches, or checking the web pages of goat owners who rent their herds to clear weeds.
Sorry, Niall, for the misspelling.
You mention “billies,” which are intact males (more properly called “bucks”), but I doubt any reputable goat-rental shop would use bucks because their testosterone can get in the way.
More likely, the rental goats are all does, females that are generally much more docile and easily managed.
To Jorgy: goats love Scotch Broom! In fact, we work with the local conservancy who bring us truckloads of the stuff for our goats. When they’re done with it (the green stuff and sometimes even the bark), we run it through a wood chipper and put it on our paths. It’s high in tannins and suppresses weeds. It’s so darn useful, I’d plant the stuff if I didn’t think I’d be lynched…
What about english holly? Real problem in natural areas and total tenacious.
Interest in this post seems to be tapering off (a normal development), so I worked on the question on holly. My web search found one goat owner east of the Mississippi who put a list on his page of plant matter that goats will eat and/or that is toxic to goats. The and/or comes from that web page originator, who notes that his conclusions are based on personal knowledge, information from other herders, and other sources. His caveat is that some weeds have been put into both categories by his collective sources, and his list is not meant to be comprehensive. That said, his web page noted that holly (presumably english or other varieties) is toxic to goats, both through its berries and sharp leaves.
That’s it for my tolerance of questions on goat diets. My information source on those questions is the web, and Sightline readers are probably more adept that I in doing searches.
That said, I do appreciate the expressed interest in the post, including Jan’s fact-checking and report back. I’d say that testosterone makes slaves of us all, but some people might take me too seriously (so warning, this was an attempt at humor!). Thanks again.
Sue Lani Madsen
I love the play on words of “sustaina-billies.” Would also like to add to Jan’s comment on the question of billies/bucks and grazing operators. Our bucks stay home on the farm with me while my husband takes our traveling herd on the road to projects like the ones for King County Metro and Seattle City Light. Our traveling herd is a combination of does, doelings (does under one year) and wethers (fixed males). We usually keep a core of mature wethers to serve as the “wether-guard” for
the herd of about 250. They are aggressively curious about visitors and their impressive horns and size generally deter goatnappers.