HANSON — What controls weeds, invasive plants and poison ivy while fertilizing the landscape and reducing use of harmful herbicides?
Goats — more precisely their use in the work of goatscaping — and they’re cute, too. But don’t touch or feed them. The extra food would only interfere with the work at hand and the plant oils from poison ivy can linger on their faces.
Hanson’s Conservation Commission has employed four of the “staff members” at The Goatscaping Company of Plympton for a project on town conservation land. The four Alpine goats have been hard at work chewing their way through the underbrush in the Poor Meadow Brook Conservation Area off West Washington Street since Wednesday, Aug. 3.
By Thursday, Aug. 11 it was time to move the fenced-in area to a new portion of the property.
“It just seems that they never stop eating,” said Rebecca Nehiley, administrative assistant to Hanson’s conservation agent.
Co-founders of Colchester Neighborhood Farm Elaine Philbrick and James Cormier started the goatscaping business five years ago after reading a newspaper account about how golf courses were using goats to control the weeds.
Before long, a job at the Cohasset Golf Course had expanded to other assignments at other courses, the Xfinity Center in Mansfield, town parks and cemeteries, abandoned buildings and private homes from Gloucester to Wellfleet, according to the company’s website gogreengoat.com.
“Elaine started it because she believed in an economically and ecologically sound way of doing landscaping and land clearing,” said company account manager Susan Schortmann, noting that Philbrook, is a mother interested in limiting chemical herbicides. “Back in the day that’s how land was cleared, using goats and other types of animals.”
Labor of love
Conservation Commission member Philip Clemons estimated the goats have a few more weeks of work ahead of them in Hanson.
The goats don’t seem to mind.
The commission has also recruited a team of about 10 people to look in on the animals twice a day to “monitor the goats’ safety and success and to provide water.” The company also placed a corrugated metal hut inside the enclosure for the oats to sleep in and to provide shelter from the rain.
A 600-foot, solar-powered electric fence, clearly marked as such, delivers a mild shock akin to that of a nine-volt battery to keep the goats in and predators out.
Goatscaping puts a modern twist on an old practice.
“We heard about, then saw with our own eyes, the whole goatscaping concept — it’s not new,” Clemons said of the decision to use the animals. “A few of us grew up with grazing animals and we know how that can work.”
When the commission was in the process of working with the Wildlands Trust of Southeastern Massachusetts in Duxbury to acquire the land, trust officials raised the goatscaping idea after walking the property.
“Since the property was successfully purchased by the town, we want to do the things we said we would do … have a few nice trails accessing the view, but we’re confronted with poison ivy that’s taller than your knees,” he said.
Goatscaping Company employee Zach Brown, 17, said the poison ivy doesn’t bother the goats.
“They love poison ivy,” Brown said. “That’s what most of the jobs come from, because people hear that goats eat poison ivy and nobody wants to go near it.”
While neither he nor fellow goat crew member Justin Dudley, 17, plan to pursue agricultural careers, they find the job interesting and rewarding. Brown plans to pursue art or engineering and Dudley aims to become a mechanic.
“Nobody I know works with farm animals, especially for this purpose,” Brown said. “I guess what’s nice, too, is explaining to people exactly what I do and the purpose of having the goats. I always get a lot of questions.”
The goats, at $600 per week for a team of four goats, has proved to be an economical way of reducing the poison ivy. Volunteers can then go in and trim out sapling twigs the goats have stripped of leaves, and remove the trash their grazing has uncovered, while starting to manage the property.
“It’s going to take a number of steps and a lot of volunteer work,” said Clemons, noting there are likely several projects within the property that could keep an Eagle Scout candidate busy.
“It needs to be inviting,” Clemons said. “Why would you go to it if you didn’t know it’s there? … We’d like to have a little trail that goes from the parking lot over to the edge of the river.”
Goatscaping also helps eliminate invasive plant species such as the fast-growing (and now unlawful to sell) burning bush or the glossy buckthorn, which has shiny green leaves that look nice but chokes out native plants like wild blueberry.
The goats may not totally denude the property of such pests, but will chew them down to where it is possible to stay ahead of them.
“If you have a plant and you mow it down year after year, eventually the roots will die,” Clemons said. “When the goats leave, we’ll see what we’re up against.”
While they’ve no doubt been noticed by bemused motorists, the goats seem to be settling in well.
“The goats seem unperturbed by the traffic going by,” Clemons said. “But they jump if they hear a branch snap.”
While poison ivy doesn’t bother the goats, there are plants that are poisonous to goats, such as milkweed and Lily of the Valley. The animals generally avoid them, but The Goatscaping Company asks that customers alert them to the presence of toxic plants, which are listed on its website.
“We also advise [potential clients] to be prepared for an influx of neighbors,” Schortmann said. “Many neighbors enjoy having the goats around almost as much as they do.”