The birth of two sets of goat triplets at the Central Experimental Farm last week reminded me that besides giving us milk, cheese and meat, these hardy little ruminants are also master weeders. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has used goats to manage unwanted vegetation for over 100 years; cities around the world have also had success with them, even in busy downtown areas. The Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, for example, hired 100 goats in 2008 to get rid of the weeds on a steep slope in Angels Knoll Park.
A two-year study from the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) found that goats were a much greener and cheaper solution to weed control than chemicals. And unlike cattle, which can die from eating noxious weeds, not much seems to upset a goat’s gastrointestinal system.
In 2007, test plots were established at three of Prince George, BC’s sewage lagoons. Professor Annie Booth, who led the UNBC study, wrestled several goats into her SUV and transported them to the sites where they were soon munching away. Within a month, the goats had dramatically reduced the number of Canada thistle, eating up almost 90% of the flowers before they could seed.
“Goats are browsers and tend to prefer weeds and saplings,” explained Professor Booth. “They’re smart enough not to eat things that will make them sick.” That intelligence can be a problem, though. Prince George had to erect fencing around the sites so that the goats wouldn’t escape. “Hungry goats are highly motivated,” said Professor Booth, “and very competent at finding previously ignored exits.”
Although they can be subject to predation by dogs, coyotes or other carnivores, goats can make good guard animals. In the case of Prince George, the goats chased away a person who wasn’t supposed to be on the property.