The Inquirer & Mirror's Gardening By the Sea column, November 2015
Today, Nantucket's sweeping moors and sandplain grasslands are maintained through a combination of mowing and annual controlled burns. This traditional wide open landscape was originally shaped by centuries of intensive sheep-grazing, starting in the mid-1600's. The practice faded as economic forces shifted in the 19th century, and this fall, even Nantucket's Conservation Foundation shut down their ten-year sheep-grazing research program. But, although the island's sheep herds may have dwindled, land managers across the country are turning to another ungulate to help manage open space: goats.
As nearby as Boston and Martha's Vineyard, communities are opting for goats over lawnmowers to manage brush, noxious weeds, and invasive species. Some farmers even make a business out of it. From Plympton, Massachusetts, the Goatscaping Company rents their ruminants for a weekly fee, between $500 and $750. In 2014, the city of Boston hired their herd to clear Hyde Park of poison ivy and invasives. Goats have also been deployed at a the Congressional Cemetery in Washington D.C., Google headquarters, and at Chicago's O'Hare airport—if nothing else, the view of the tarmac from the airplane window must have improved.
Goats differ from sheep in a few key ways. First, sheep graze. They prefer feeding on grasses and forbs, which include flowering plants like goldenrod and chicory. “They turn landscapes into grass,” explains Connie Helstosky, erstwhile sheep grazing technician at the Conservation Foundation. Sheep are better-suited for encouraging what's considered Nantucket's historic landscape: open meadows and sandplain grassland.
Goats are great at clearing a landscape of woody plants and brush. Unlike sheep, goats love to browse on leaves, twigs, and bark. They're climbers and can reach about five feet high, a bit like a deer. Since they can defoliate and even girdle trees, goats are harsh on the landscape. The Goatscaping Company says that their goats clear approximately a quarter to one third of an acre per week, depending on vegetation density. After a herd spends enough time in a wooded field, there probably won't be any trees left.
But sometimes, that's exactly what you want. Poison ivy and scrub oak can feel impossible to manage, and the list of invasive plant species on Nantucket isn't getting any shorter. Species like Japanese knotweed, honeysuckle, and multiflora rose leave conservation groups at a loss. They choke native plants and overwhelm ecosystems, but none of the management options are all that appealing: removal by hand is labor-intensive and costly; herbicides, also expensive, can damage fragile habitats; and mowing is unfeasible on steep, swampy, or uneven earth. Plus, heavy machinery compacts soil and crushes wildlife. Perhaps, in some cases, goatscaping could offer an elegant solution.
Compared to a mower, goats are gentle, quiet, and ecologically and socially friendly. They can be raised organically and without fossil fuels, which is attractive to those hoping to avoid using industrial products like RoundUp. Goats can clamber to hard-to-reach places like boulders, and managers can target specific weed patches by fencing them in. But, after unleashing the herd, don't expect them to leave anything behind. The first thing they'll choose to munch on? “Your favorite flower,” quips local goat farmer Ray Owen. “Goats are notorious for eating things you don't want them to eat.”
But, when you want them to eat absolutely everything, goats might be ideal. This year on Martha's Vineyard, the Land Bank Commission voted to hire a goatherd to combat woody encroachment of their grasslands. Their decision was motivated in part by a concern for the endangered box turtles living in there, which wouldn't survive mowing.
The Commission also hopes that goatscaping could be part of a sustainable long-term management plan. Not only does goat manure enrich the soil, grazing can influence soil chemistry and stimulate grass growth, giving grassland species “the upper hand,” executive director James Lengyel wrote this spring. The Commission wound up buying a goatherd from a local business and managing the herd themselves this summer.
Could goatscaping work on Nantucket? It might be easier to mow here than Martha's Vineyard, since the topography is less rocky here. But, though the island is in better shape than some communities, our invasive species problem is serious. Goats could be used to target woody invasives like honeysuckle and Oriental bittersweet. In areas where scrub oak is a nuisance, consistent defoliation by goats could be more cost-effective—and successful—than repeated mowing.
Today, many Nantucketers keep goats, but mostly just as pets. Ray Owen has raised goats for the past twenty years, both for their milk and their company. Today, he pastures seven Alpine goats at Berry Patch Farm, one billy goat and six girls: Alfie, Puzzle, Zoë, Raisin, Phoenix, Chili, and Sophia. Several goat owners on island sourced their goats from Owen's herd.
Owen prefers goats to sheep, partly because he considers them less work: they don't require shearing, for example. But, he says, goats are fussy. “They smell everything before they eat it. Goats waste hay. If they take a mouthful of hay and some drops to the ground, it's history. They don't pick it up.”
To keep goats, you need a good fence. Owen recommends at least four feet high, either wire or electric. Also, goats hate rain. Sheep continue grazing despite the weather, but like many gardeners on Nantucket, goats run for shelter at the first sign of a drizzle.
Owen raises the goats for their milk, but warns against milking a herd while also deploying them to clear brush. “If you are using the milk, you should not put them on weeds and forage. Goes into the flavor,” he explains. For mild sweet milk, Owen keeps his goats on good hay and grass, plus peanuts as a treat.
Helstosky, sheep grazing technician, points out that it wouldn't work to throw just any pet goat at a stand of Japanese knotweed and expect good results. Herd management is important. “I think it takes time,” she explains. “In America today, we do rely on grain and pretty high quality forage.” Modern breeds might find the transition to woody plants challenging, and a goat accustomed to sweet hay might not fare well on wild plants.
While most local shrubs are edible to goats, wild plants are generally less palatable than farmed hay, since they adapted defensive compounds to protect themselves against grazers. It's also important to be aware of any plants in the area that might be poisonous to goats. They can handle poison ivy, but not mountain laurel, choke cherry, milkweed, and pokeberry, to name a few.
Owen advises supplementing a diet of woody brush with extra hay. That's also the practice of the Goatscaping Company, which, after delivering their goats to the customer's property, installs an electric fence and provides customers with a good supply of hay to feed the goats for their weeklong stay.
Still, Helstosky says that the right group of goats could do well on a wild diet. Over the course of a few generations, herds can adapt to local ecosystems and microclimates. Even a herd of sheep can acclimate to a landscape populated by woody brush. “You have to adapt the animal to the task,” Helstosky says. The sustainability of a herd is a long-term business, one that requires strategy, skill, and a close relationship with the animals.