Restoration with Goats: Ruminating on the Reasons

I will attempt to graze over a topic ubiquitous in the southeast: invasive plants. With over 5,000 nonnative plant species in the U.S., you could say that this is no small problem, whether it is in our hands or not. You may ask yourself: Why should I care about the spread of some obnoxious, ugly weed that someone else brought over decades ago? Or rather: why get rid of cool plants like wisteria or bamboo even if they really belong in China? There is no right or wrong answer. People have different values and also vary in their understanding of ecology.

Regardless of conflicting viewpoints, it is known that invasive species can and often do impose negatively on the environment (despite the good intentions that they were introduced with). Let’s take into account how plants influence the quality of the ecosystems and the natural resources that we rely on.

Invasive plants can uproot the fragile balance of ecosystems, reducing the quality of air, water, and soil. They can also lower species diversity by displacing important native plants and their pollinators. These noxious plants can be fast-growing species that will especially take advantage of disturbed urban areas. Personally, I have observed roadsides, recently cut forests, and even neighborhood yards being degraded and undervalued because of their overgrown state. These places are often so far removed from their original state that authors like Howard Kunstler believe that they have “simply ceased to be a credible human habitat.”

When people dismiss the value of maintaining nature’s beauty and functionality, what is the future for land that is viewed in such a despairing way and who will be there to reclaim it? How about… some hungry goats?

Goats are prime agents of vegetation removal in a method call prescribed grazing (the application of livestock to control unwanted vegetation). With the recent growth in prescribed grazing businesses across the country, a cohort of people with a solid grasp of the ecological role of goats and other ravenous ruminants, is in the making. At the optimal frequency, duration, and density, goats may be the most economical, non-polluting, and common sense solution for controlling vegetation in a variety of situations. Alternatives such as prescribed fire, biological control, herbicides, and mechanical removal possess great restoration potential as well, but like prescribed grazing, there is still insufficient knowledge of their applicability and efficacy, especially when multiple techniques are combined. As prescribed grazing is becoming more popular as a restoration tool, experimentation and research is being conducted to glean its full potential for the future.

Here at the University of Georgia, a herd of goats called the Tanyard Creek Chew Crew has been fighting against the spread of invasives right in the heart of campus.  Instigated by UGA landscape architecture alumnus Zach Richardson about two years ago and carried on by his former supervisor Dr. Eric MacDonald in the College of Environment and Design, the Chew Crew project, rooted in environmental stewardship, outreach, and research, has developed in response to this environmental issue on campus. Professors, students, and community members from varying disciplines continue to work alongside these goats to spread awareness of water quality issues and invasive species in the local area. The patch of riparian forest that Tanyard Creek flows through is just one of innumerable neglected urban landscapes in the area. As browsing animals with diverse diets (not to mention a hankering for woody invasive plants), goats are able to keep overgrown vegetation at bay, making Tanyard Creek more visible, accessible, and even valuable to the local community. As the project expands over the years, Tanyard Creek will hopefully transform to a state reminiscent of its previous ecological composition with native plants and animals and a cleaner environment.

If people wish to live in a healthy and beautiful place, collaborative efforts such as the Tanyard Creek Chew Crew must be an impetus in changing the way people view land. Overcoming these challenges is going to take time, many trials, and inevitably, error, but working alongside goats makes it a little more fun. Native plant restoration and invasive species eradication just may be the solution to recover livable spaces for wildlife, people, and even goats alike.I leave you with a quote by Hank Green: “Doing these things is difficult, like, in the way that uncooking bacon is difficult. So let’s look at what we’re doing, and try to uncook this unbelievably large pile of bacon we’ve made!”

References

  1. Hanula, J., S. Horn, J.W. Taylor. 2009. Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense) Removal and its Effect on Native Plant Communities of Riparian Forests. Invasive Plant Science and Management 2:292-300
  2. Hart, SP. 2001. Recent perspectives on using goats for vegetation management in the USA. Journal of Dairy Science 18:E170-E176.
  3. Kunstler, J.H. 1993. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-made Landscape / James Howard Kunstler: New York: Simon & Schuster, c1993.
  4. Richardson, Z. Urban prescribed grazing as an alternative to conventional land management techniques: environmental, economic, and social implications. MLA thesis. University of Georgia, Athens, 2014. Print.
  5. Salter, M., Z. Richardson, E.M. MacDonald. 2013. Prescribed goat grazing in urban settings: a pilot study of the legal framework in nine US cities. CELA Paper No. 13-3.

Suze Henderson

Suzie Henderson is an undergraduate student in the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia. Other than goats, she loves learning, gardening, cooking, and her family and friends.  You can find her on Facebook or email her at suzieuga@uga.edu. If you want to know more about the goats or want to volunteer with the Chew Crew feel free to contact her about it!