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Green brush-clearing machines

Goats tackle jobs too thorny for human crews

Goatscaping Co. founders Elaine Philbrick and Jim Courmier check on workers clearing a hillside at Black Rock Country Club in Hingham.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Goatscaping Co. founders Elaine Philbrick and Jim Courmier check on workers clearing a hillside at Black Rock Country Club in Hingham.

COHASSET — Glen Misiaszek was griping at a family gathering about the perils and pain of attacking the poison ivy and brambles at the edges of the Cohasset Golf Club, where he’s the course superintendent.

“You should rent a ruminant,” a relative told him.

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“You’re kidding,” he replied,

“No, rent a goat,” she said.

So he did, taking advantage of a small but growing cottage industry that uses four-legged critters to manage vegetation in places ranging from the Google campus in California to the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

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Misiaszek leased a crew of four — Geisha, Skylark, Zoe, and Chloe — from the Goatscaping Co. in August 2012, becoming the first customer of the Plymouth-based

Black Rock Country Club course superintendent Chuck Welch checks one of the few remaining brambles near the 14th green after a Goatscaping Co. crew cleared a densely covered area that claimed many an errant shot.

Barry Chin/ Globe Staff

Black Rock Country Club course superintendent Chuck Welch checks one of the few remaining brambles near the 14th green after a Goatscaping Co. crew cleared a densely covered area that claimed many an errant shot.

enterprise that now wrangles 30 goats along with four borrowed sheep. When they’re not working, the goats stay at the Colchester Neighborhood Farm in Plympton.

“We’ve got most of our goats booked up and working through this month and into November, depending on the weather,” said Jim Cormier, company cofounder and chief goat herder.

At their work sites, the animals are enclosed by about 100 feet of portable solar-powered electric fencing, which is moved as needed. On average, four to five adult goats can clear about an acre of brush, up to about 6 feet high, in a week, Cormier said. Because of their agility, goats can reach rocky or ledge areas that are difficult to mow, he said.

Goats don’t like to eat grass, but thrive on poison ivy, poison sumac, blackberries, nasty vines, and briars — the type of vegetation that ordinarily requires heavy machinery, herbicides, or intense encounters with personal pain to manage, Cormier said.

“What’s garbage to us is dessert to them,” he said.

And goats leave behind no trash, according to Cormier’s partner, Elaine Philbrick, a Duxbury resident who owned the company’s original four goats as pets.

“There’s no debris, no hauling away, or burning,” she said. “And their bio-waste is indistinguishable from deer’s. It’s odorless and degrades in a week or two.”

The company charges $10 per goat per day, requires a minimum of four goats for one week, and asks that customers put out daily water and a “little bit” of provided hay and grain. Socializing with the goats is not mandated, but appears inevitable with the friendly animals, each of whom has a name.

The Goatscaping Company Cashmere goats do their thing at Black Rock Country Club in Hingham.

Barry Chin/ Globe Staff

The Goatscaping Company Cashmere goats do their thing at Black Rock Country Club in Hingham.

Goatscaping’s customers include Misiaszek in Cohasset, Black Rock Country Club in Hingham, a state agency, Duxbury, Planet Subaru in Hanover, and numerous individual homeowners who turned to goats to tackle landscaping headaches after more traditional methods failed or were deemed environmentally problematic.

In Duxbury, the Department of Public Works opted for a crew of goats to get rid of vines, brush, and masses of poison ivy on a 5-acre waterfront property that the town bought in 2011. The former Blairhaven Retreat Center, which had been owned by a Swedenborgian church in Cambridge, is being converted to a park, according to the DPW’s director, Peter Buttkus.

The goats arrived the first week of September for a two-month trial, and Buttkus said he’s sold on the five animals. He said the town could have used heavy equipment to clear the site, but the goats were a gentler solution.

“They’re very quiet, and they’re doing a great job,” he said. “And they’re so easy. All you have to do is install a small portable electric fence, and pretty much turn them loose. It’s a lot less invasive than bringing heavy equipment in and ripping everything apart.’’

The goats “very quietly munch everything down,’’ Buttkus said, “and then we can get in and do the finish work.”

Goats earned similar raves from the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which in June hired 15 goats and a few sheep for just shy of $5,000 to clear vegetation from the grounds of the closed Westborough State Hospital.

The weeds were a fire hazard and impaired sight lines needed for security surveillance, according to agency spokeswoman Rachael Neff. But the debris on the site and dense vegetation posed a hazard for human landscapers, so the state decided to try the ruminants, she said.

The trial “was a huge success,” Neff said, with the site cleared without any harm to humans, goats, or sheep. “They ate everything to as high up as they could reach; it was simply amazing to watch the transformation” of the property, she said.

“I want to emphasize that they ate everything — poison ivy, thorn bushes, thickets, leaves. Seemed like the more menacing . . . the plants, the more delicious the goats found them,” she added.

And using goats instead of machinery also had the environmental benefit of leaving no carbon footprint, Neff said.

Sandra Moll chose goats to clear poison ivy from her property on the North River in Hanover partly for environmental reasons. She could have used herbicides, Moll said, but there was “no way I’m going to put poison down next to the North River.” And a lawn crew would have had to do some major cutting to get to the pesky plants, she said.

She did some research online, discovered the Goatscaping Co., and for two weeks had four goats addressing the problem. When they were done, the goats moved down the street to help a neighbor who also had a fierce patch of poison ivy. Moll said she plans to bring back the goats next year, and more neighbors are interested.

“They’re charming little animals, and they did a very good job,” she said. “They eat with a little staccato effect, but it’s definitely not slash and burn. The other thing is they’re cheap compared to a lawn service. I got estimates that it would have cost $1,000 to $1,500, and I paid like $450 for the goats. So it was considerable savings, far less damage to the property, and they’re kind of cute.”

The golfers at Black Rock Country Club also are getting a kick out of the four leased goats that have been working there since May, according to course superintendent Chuck Welch. “They’re unbelievably friendly; they love to be petted,” Welch said.

“They’re doing a really nice job,” he added. “They’ve cleaned a couple of rocks that were pretty infested with poison ivy. I’d put my crew in there, and somebody was always bleeding from the cat briar or getting poison ivy. This year we put the goats in, and didn’t have a single case of poison ivy.”

The number of cases of poison ivy has also plummeted at Cohasset Golf Club since the goats arrived there, according to Misiaszek. And the amount of herbicides he’s used on the property is down “almost to nothing,” he added.

The club recently swapped out its goats for four sheep — which, unlike goats, like grass and are neater eaters — to help with the fall grass mowing, he said.

“With a golf course, especially an old one like Cohasset, it’s all about being as natural, as raw as you possibly can — letting the golf course speak for itself,” he said. ”And having sheep and goats out here eat some of our grasses and help with some of these difficult areas — to me it’s so natural. I think it’s a great concept.”

Not everyone is a fan, though.

Philbrick tried to interest NStar in using goats instead of herbicides on the utility’s right-of-way corridors on Cape Cod. But NStar spokesman Michael Durand said the company prefers an “integrated vegetation management” system, which combines limited mowing and herbicide applications targeted at killing invasive species and encouraging the spread of low-growing meadow plants.

“Goats are indiscriminate eaters,” Durand said. “They’re ineffective at creating the low-growing, self-sustaining environment that we want.”

Despite that, Philbrick and Cormier said they are confident enough in the market for the company’s services that they’re planning to grow their herd over the winter.

It’s a turn of events they both acknowledge was surprising, considering neither came from farm backgrounds or had experience with livestock.

Cormier, who lives in Plymouth, had been in the book business, and Philbrick owns a brokerage company in Rockland and her husband is an executive with Ernst & Young.

But both became involved with Colchester Neighborhood Farm, where Philbrick kept the four goats she got as pets for her two young children. From there it was a leap of faith to start a goat landscaping business, which Cormier now does full time.

“Maybe a month ago, I was filling out an application and it asked my occupation — and I actually wrote goat herder. And I loved it,” he said.

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.
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