When Goats Join the Restoration Team

by Maureen Sundberg

Faced with a two-acre lot of nearly impenetrable thicket of multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora Thunb. ex Murr.), glossy buckthorn (Frangula alnus), common buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica L.), Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus Thunb.), and a smattering of other invasive plants, all blanketed by poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) , where do you begin? That was the situation confronting the City of Boston Parks and Recreation Department when they considered how to restore the West Street Urban Wild in the Hyde Park section of Boston.

West Street Urban Wild in Hyde Park presented a toxic combination of invasive plants and poison ivy.

West Street Urban Wild in Hyde Park presented a toxic combination of invasive plants and poison ivy.

Tucked along the banks of the Neponset River, the West Street site is one of 37 natural areas known as Boston’s Urban Wilds: areas maintained for conservation and passive recreation. According to Paul Sutton, Urban Wilds Program Manager with Boston Parks and Recreation Department, the mission of the urban wilds program is to protect these natural areas through correct land ownership or land restrictions, to manage the renovation or restoration of the sites, and then to arrange for their long term maintenance. The West Street site was of strategic interest because of its location along the river and adjacent to state conservation land, but suffered from years of neglect during which it became overgrown with poison ivy, and non-native invasives. Sutton notes that it was “rife with invasive plants from the ground cover, shrub layer, and some of the understory layer. But the most problematic component…was the poison ivy. Possibly the most I’ve seen in one location – ever.” Enter the goats.

Coming up with the Proposal

The idea of using goats on the approximately two-acre West Street property was first brought up by Pat Alvarez of the Southwest Boston Community Development Corporation (SWBCDC), a non-profit group that serves the Hyde Park and Roslindale neighborhoods of Boston. SWBCDC hoped to link the West Street property into the ribbon of community-accessible green space along the Fairmount Line that runs from South Station to Hyde Park. The West Street Urban Wild was highly desirable with river access. It was also a potential project for SWBCDC’s Green Team, a jobs and environmental education project that employs local youths to work on urban wild restoration projects. The big problem, Alvarez noted, was that “the youth who do our work are all high school students, and it just wasn’t safe for them to be exposed to that level of poison ivy.” Alvarez knew that “goats like poison ivy and eat a lot of brush” and had considered using goats in restoration work, but the idea really gained traction with the input of Mike Chavez, an Enterprise Rose Architectural Fellow working with SWBCDC who also thought goats were a viable solution.

Goats enjoy munching on poison ivy and are not bothered by the resin that causes rash in some people.

Goats enjoy munching on poison ivy and are not bothered by the resin that causes rash in some people.

Alvarez and The Green Team managed to catch Mayor Martin Walsh at a local community event and pitched their idea for using goats at West Street. They received a tentative positive response, and the group was asked to submit a formal proposal to Boston Parks and Recreation Commissioner Chris Cook. Sutton credits Alvarez and Chavez with completing the research and submitting a “very sound” proposal that the city approved. The next step was to contact Elaine Philbrick co-owner of The Goatscaping Company out of Plympton, MA and work out the details for managing the goats. According to Philbrick, goats work well in places that are difficult for people to work in, such as ledge and what she calls “the New England jungle.”

Permanent  fencing enclosed the West Street site, but an electrified net fence enclosed the goats in half-acre sections so they could graze down the plants.

Permanent fencing enclosed the West Street site, but an electrified net fence confined the goats in quarter-acre sections so they would completely graze a section.

Addressing Safety

The major concern for all parties was keeping the goats safe. Some concern was alleviated by the site’s location off a dead-end side street and abutting a row of single-family houses. The local police and neighbors also voiced their commitment to keeping an eye out for the animals. But a big plus was that the West Street site already had permanent fencing on three sides of the property, and the fourth side was bound by a large building. The permanent fence would augment the security provided by Goatscaping’s electrified fencing.

The use of goats in tough, urban landscapes is a recent innovation made possible by the introduction of solar-powered electric net fencing that keeps the goats in and unwelcome visitors out. Goats have long been recognized as great animals for clearing brush, and the electrified net fencing resolves the issue of how to contain them. The plan for West Street UrbanWild was to fence about a quarter of an acre of the site at a time. Then Goatscaping would return once a week, unless called in earlier, to move the fencing and the goats to a new section on the site.

Keeping Up with the Goats

In August four goats moved onto the site, and it became the Green Team’s job to replenish the goats’ water on a daily basis and give them a mineral supplement. They also checked to see if the goats were eating through the quarter acre too quickly. Alvarez notes the challenge of trying to gauge the eating habits of the goats. When the four goats were first introduced, they ate through the first quarter acre too slowly, so two more goats were added to the herd. Eventually, one animal had to be removed to slow down the process. Occasionally, the youth provided extra hay or cut vines from an adjacent section if the goats ate through a section quickly.

Members of Southwest Boston Conservation District Corporation's Green Team helped care for the goats on site.

Members of Southwest Boston Conservation District Corporation’s Green Team helped care for the goats on site.

As the goats did their work, the site gradually came into view. According to Alvarez “the brush and poison ivy and all the invasives were so thick that you couldn’t see beneath them until the goats had eaten through. Then it was shocking what was revealed. Everything from front seats of a car to Christmas lights to big pieces of metal. So as we went along, we had to be diligent about making sure we removed anything that was unsafe and that we reported to Goatscaping if we had any concerns.” Philbrick noted that, in opposition to the stereotype, “Goats are good about avoiding things that aren’t edible.”

For eight weeks the goats munched on poison ivy and invasive plants. In the end, Sutton thinks the project “was really successful. Now we can actually walk into the site.” The thicket of multiflora rose and bittersweet were well controlled by the goats; they ate the leaves and narrower plant stems, including the small thorns on the multiflora rose, leaving the skeleton of the plants. The goats “stand on their rear legs and reach into the trees maybe six feet high. And we were told the goats would eat everything four inches or taller. That was pretty much true. We thought they could have done a little bit better job with the poison ivy. We wished that they could have eaten it lower. We had a lot of volunteers tending the goats and inevitably a few got poison ivy.”

Goats prefer to eat plants at least four inches off the ground and given support will eat up into trees and shrubs.

Goats prefer to eat plants at least 4 inches off the ground, and given sturdy support they will eat up into trees and shrubs.

Community Outreach

At least part of the success of the goat project is attributable to good public relations and community support. The few minor problems the group encountered – a goat with a foot caught in the electric fencing during a spate of cloudy weather that affected the fence charge, another with a bottle cap caught between its toes – were quickly addressed when residents phoned SWBCDC. Police patrols also kept an eye out and called the group to check that anyone in the fenced area was authorized to be there. “Everyone adopted the goats and really looked out for them,” Alvarez says. “We had a daily parade of parents with baby strollers, kids on bikes, adult children with their elderly parents, people from across the city coming to visit the goats. It touched something in everyone.”

Follow Up Strategies

The goats finished their work for the season in October. Boston Parks and Recreation staff and the Green team continue to monitor the invasives and poison ivy and continue with removal. Sutton described their strategies. They are cutting the large bittersweet vines “at the highest and lowest points possible on the plant. No digging out this year; it’s way too much work. We want to make sure that the mature stems are cut; even though the leaves are eaten off, the stem is still viable and traveling up the trees.” Once cut, the upper vine will die and eventually fall off the supporting tree, but the cut stumps and roots will continue to sprout. His goal for multi-flora rose is to cut the thorny plant down to the ground so that the remaining stalks don’t endanger people working on the site. Next year, they’ll grub the plants out with picks. The group is weed wrenching the smaller buckthorn plants and will cut the larger plants flush to the ground before leafout in the spring and continue to cut off new sprouts. Sutton admits that they haven’t figured out yet how to address the small patch of knotweed, and he’ll be monitoring how all the invasive plants respond to the stress from goats. “We know some of them will be stressed out and may not come back with vigor; others will come back, but we’ll be able to manually remove them; some like the knotweed will be really, really vigorous.”

“It’s the poison ivy that’s the real challenge,” Sutton acknowledges. Mature poison ivy vines up the trees and has produced years’ worth of seeds that have fallen and resulted in the many new plants that now sprawl across the forest floor. “One thought is to bring the goats in again early in the spring next year – May perhaps. This fall we’ll do as much work with the other invasives, and then next year we’ll try to do an early intervention with the poison ivy.”  In addition to the goats, Sutton plans to investigate companies that perform manual poison ivy removal. If the goats return, Sutton would like to try a variety of strategies, such as spreading a grass seed mix on the site with the idea that the goats will provide fertilizer and also work the seeds into the soil with their hoofs. “Since we’ll have a lot more sun into the site next year, some of these grasses will come in and compete with the poison ivy over time.” Philbrick explains that the goats won’t eat either the grass seed or the sprouted grass. They also don’t eat clover, moss, or ferns, so though they won’t eat the poison ivy’s roots, it’s possible for other groundcovers to compete when the poison ivy continues to be eaten down.

After the goats finished with a section, volunteers were able to enter the site and continue with cleanup.

After the goats finished with a section, volunteers were able to enter the site and continue with cleanup.

Cost Comparison

For Sutton, successful use of goats requires “choosing the right site, getting together the right team, and being clear about what they are being used for and what realistic outcomes are.”  Not coincidentally, the goats were the most economical option. According to Alvarez, “They were very affordable compared to bringing in machinery and crews. They were the most affordable option as well as the most ecologically sound option at $350/week for the four goats.” Sutton agreed that both short-term and long-term costs were greatly reduced by using the herd of goats.

West Street Urban Wild turned out to be a perfect site for Boston Parks to test goats as part of a restoration team. “I would have been more skeptical if it had been a site with more native plants and fewer invasives or a site that was more public or in a higher crime area. If there had been more native plants on site, it might have been different, but with so few aside from the canopy layer, we said, ‘You know, let’s give this a shot.’” As for safety, the site seems to have had just the right amount of visibility and community involvement. The goats enjoyed two months of munching on poison ivy, and the neighbors enjoyed the friendly presence of the goats quietly going about their work.

Invasive plants grew up to the fence at West Street Urban Wild (left), but were still mowed low a few weeks after the goats were moved.

Invasive plants grew up to the fence at West Street Urban Wild (left), but were still mowed low a few weeks after the goats were moved (right).

About the Author

Maureen Sundberg edits the ELA Newsletter and writes from her home in Andover, MA. She can be reached at ela_new@verizon.net.