The goats arrived in Wellesley with a mission: Eat up the creeping poison ivy, wild grape, and bittersweet that exploded in Boulder Brook Reservation after crews for a nearby landowner cut down about 100 trees two years ago.
The sunlight that now spills through the open canopy has allowed invasive species to thrive, climbing the surrounding trees and strangling their root systems. Left unchecked, they could slowly overtake the 31-acre reservation.
But the team of six goats that showed up last month, dressed for success in jaunty blue and pink bandanas, offered an effective — and environmentally friendly — method of invasive species management. It’s one that is becoming more and more popular as the green movement spreads.
“We just thought it was a more ecologically sound solution,” said Ursula King, vice chairwoman of the town’s Natural Resources Commission, who spearheaded the effort to bring in the goats. “Given what it costs to do an herbicide application, we just think it’s so much more efficient.”
According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the use of goats to control invasive species, already common out West, is becoming more common across the East Coast.
Goats love woody shrubs and vines, making them ideal weed-whackers. Using goats cuts down on the need for herbicides, and, unlike tractors, goats don’t require diesel fuel to do their job. And nimble goats can easily maneuver across rocky or marshy surfaces that humans and machines can’t safely reach.
“Folks are looking for long-term means of control,” said Eric Schrading, private lands coordinator at the Fish and Wildlife Service. “As the last 30-plus years have gone by, we’ve started to, maybe not abandon chemical control, but use that as only one tool in the toolbox.”
In Wellesley, the goats were shuttled out to the Boulder Brook Reservation in a bright pink truck driven by a crew from the Goat Girls: Hope Crolius, owner of the Amherst-based business, and two of her goatherds, Emily Peterson and Chelsea Grybko.
The goats – Dan, Midnight, Autumn, Morningstar, Crumpet, and Tumbleweed – spent three eight-hour days late last month chewing up weeds and vines in a 1,500-square-foot area. The Goat Girls team followed behind them, spreading the plants yanked out by the goats across the forest floor to dry and decompose.
Three days of goats ran the town $2,806. It’s being paid for with money from a $140,000 insurance settlement with the nearby landowner, according to Janet Bowser, executive director of the Natural Resources Commission.
About 100 trees, many standing 60 to 70 feet tall and some nearly a century old, were cut down in February 2010 by a crew working for the neighbor, Steve Belkin, founder of the Trans National Group.
At the time, according to Bowser, Belkin’s property manager, Bob Campana, said he had hired a crew to cut down just a handful of trees that he believed were on Belkin’s land, but he left the crew unsupervised and they cut down far more trees than instructed. Belkin, according to Bowser, was away at the time of the cutting, and said he didn’t know about it.
Both men, she said, were very apologetic, and were cooperative in trying to find a solution.
Without the goats to clear the invasive species, said King, the town would have had to turn to chemicals, applied by hand in a method known as “cut and swab,” where a worker first cuts an individual weed and then dabs it with herbicide.
“We try everything we can not to use herbicides or pesticides,” she said. “Our commission has a big campaign to get residents to stop using lawn chemicals. We feel like we have to live by that as much as we can.”
The Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Habitat Wildlife Sanctuary in Belmont also tries to minimize herbicide use, and has been using goats to maintain three meadows on the 90-acre property for about two years, according to sanctuary director Roger Wrubel. The goats help keep the land clear of poison ivy, European buckthorn, Virginia creeper, raspberries, blackberries, and Asiatic bittersweet.
The sanctuary has reduced its diesel fuel consumption by 30 to 40 percent, Wrubel said, because the goats so ably replace the tractor.
“Mass Audubon’s goal is to reduce our carbon footprint, and this is an easy way to do it,” he said.
Five goats and about a dozen sheep ramble across the meadows year-round in Belmont. The benefits aren’t just environmental.
“We think it’s kind of cool,” Wrubel said. “It’s sort of a reversion back to the way people kept meadows around here, before farming declined. It just sort of adds something to the landscape that’s pretty positive. People love to come look at them. It’s an attraction for the sanctuary.”
Crolius founded the Goat Girls after leaving her career as a writer. From behind her computer, the image of herself herding goats called to her.
“It’s an ancient occupation. You’re outdoors all the time, and you’re interacting with animals all the time, and there’s not a computer in sight,” she said. “I thought, that’s a real antidote to this modern, wired existence, which was making me fat and unhappy.”
She started a gardening business, and when a client asked her to get some grazing animals to help clear his land, her mind returned to her old dream.
Her client thought that sheep would do the trick, but sheep, Crolius said, are grazers: They eat grass. Goats are browsers: They eat the woody brush and weeds that plague gardens.
“Sheep weren’t the answer,” she said. “But goats were.”
Since she founded the Goat Girls, Crolius said, she has found her services in higher and higher demand. “The word is out now,” she said. “The phone is ringing off the hook.”
Wellesley may yet have to do a limited pesticide application at Boulder Brook Reservation if the invasive species return, said King, but it’s something that the Natural Resources Commission is trying to avoid.
The next phase of restoration, she said, will be largely up to the forest.
Because the area where the trees were cut is a rocky ledge, she said, planting replacement trees is not possible. Digging into the ground would be difficult, and would require bringing in machinery that could damage the foliage.
The key, she said, will be keeping the weeds at bay. The goats could end up making another appearance in town.
“If we can keep the invasives under control, the forest will regenerate,” she said. “It’s not going to happen overnight; it’s going to take decades.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.