are one of the oldest domesticated species. For thousands of years, they've
been used for their meat, milk and hair. They've even pulled carts. And now
they have a new job – on the front line of the fight against an invasive pest
plant. Erika Celeste reports from
city officials have hired some rather unusual workers for the area's most
difficult landscaping jobs.
Pita, Indiana and Lily are goats… and they are in charge of clearing an
invasive plant known as kudzu from a park on Lookout Mountain. Surrounded by an electric fence and guarded
by a Great Pyrenees watch dog named Goliath, they will be hard at work for a
month… about all the time it will take them to clear half a hectare.
goats belong to Natural Landclearing, owned by Steve Surowitz and his wife
Marci. The company's herd contains about 100 animals, most of which are
fainting goats. This species has a genetic disorder that causes their muscles
to freeze for a few seconds when they're startled, so they fall down. Surowitz
explains that makes them better for a land clearing operation. "They don't
challenge the fence, they don't run away and if they do, you just clap your
hands and they faint," he says with a laugh.
plant that ate the South
much of the South, Chattanooga suffers from near strangulation by kudzu. The
Asian vine was brought to the United States more than a century ago, and widely
promoted as an effective way to reduce soil erosion. But it was too
effective; it can grow up to 36 centimeters a day, quickly blanketing
everything from telephone poles and houses to hillsides and trees. It became
known as 'the plant that ate the South' and was declared a pest plant in 1953.
Millions of dollars are still spent each year to try to control it.
Hertlein is executive director of the Lookout Mountain Conservancy, which hired
the goats to clear the park. She says in the battle against kudzu, they need
every tool in their arsenal to win. She explains that controlling it is an
enormous challenge. "It is enormously expensive to try to rid an area of
kudzu, which is one of the reasons why it continues to eat the south. Ridding an area of it is cost prohibitive
for a lot of folks."
modern practice of using goats to clear land first gained popularity out West,
in places like California, where dry brush commonly fuels wildfires. Goats,
which eat almost anything, especially like brush and shrubs, but a taller plant
doesn't faze them. Steve Surowitz says although kudzu can climb to several
meters in height, the goats do a surprisingly good job of pulling it down.
"They'll stand on their hind legs and eat up to [2 meters] tall. So goats naturally do this. What they don't
like, they won't eat. It's as simple as that. If they know it's poisonous, they
won't eat it."
admits that if they know it's good to eat, they will try to eat it, and this is
one of the drawbacks to using goats. "If you've got a tree or something to
that effect that you want to protect, you better have a three foot barrier
around it, otherwise a goat will stick its head through, push it over, lean on
it, whatever it can to get to the greens on the tree!"
phase one of the land clearing mission
can't do the job all by themselves. Once they clear away the vines, Surowitz
says it's time for the humans to step in. "If you don't have a plan in
place for when they're done, what they've done will get wasted away again and
it will turn right back in to what it was," he stresses. "So the
goats are in no way a permanent repair."
With the ground cover gone, it becomes much easier to identify the
kudzu's root crown system and attack it directly with chemicals so it can't
have been so successful in helping Chattanooga control its pest plant problem,
the city held a Goat Browsing Academy last year to train local residents to
care for land-clearing goats of their own. Donna Hertlein explains it was a
hands-on workshop that covered the basics of goat management. "Since they
established that … you can get goats through [the folks who have gone through
the Goat Browsing Academy] to help you with your exotic pest plant
Pita, Indiana and Lily, along with the goats that havegraduated from the
Browsing Academy, have been used not only for city and land trusts, but also at
private homes around central Tennessee.
Surowitz's plan to start using larger herds to clear areas in less time. They
also hope to get their goats onto some military bases in the South, which are
also losing the battle with kudzu.