“They recognize my truck,” says Natural Resource Coordinator, Dan MacSwain, as he pulls up to the wire fence.
MacSwain barely has time to turn off the ignition and 30 goats have already lined up behind the fence awaiting a delicious mixture of oats and corn, which MacSwain carries around in an old cranberry juice bottle.
Once over the fence, the goats immediately begin to swarm MacSwain like a litter of eager puppies. They nudge his heels, but as soon as MacSwain starts to shake the cranberry juice bottle, their empty eyes turn to him.
Though the goats hurriedly began nibbling on the oats in his hands, this is nowhere near their goats’ first meal of the day. The herd has a total of 240 has been munching all day long on a buffet of plant species.
And that’s the goats’ job. Four years ago, with additional support from the South Washington Watershed District, Washington County started bringing in herds of goats from Faribault, Minnesota to Cottage Grove Ravine Park and Lake Elmo Regional Park to nosh on the parks’ plants as a way to promote plant diversity.
Plant diversity is important for the animals and insects that rely on particular plants to survive. The parks also want to promote soil health by preventing erosion. Plants with strong root depth keep the soil healthy and create a “living cover,” which shields the top layer solid from being worn down.
The main culprit the parks want the goats to dine on is garlic mustard and buckthorn. Without the goats, these plants tend to become overgrown and create a monoculture on shallowly rooted plants.
Along with plant species diversity, it’s also important the parks have a diverse range of plant heights, which provides habitat for birds and other animals.
Goats certainly have a reputation for eating everything in sight, but this character trait can be a useful one when managing plant species. As the goats munch, they eat up unwanted plants, but they also prune back the strongly rooted plants, fostering regrowth among these species.
The parks use a grazing method called mob grazing, which consists of short intense intervals of grazing. This method helps minimize soil compaction as the goats graze and tromp around the area. The goats only spend a couple days grazing in each section of the park before they are moved to another location to dine.
Of the 500 acres of Cottage Grove Ravine Park, the goats graze about 40 acres of the park between June and July.
“They tend to get louder when they want to move to a new grazing location,” said MacSwain.
There’s no doubt the goats are cute and are a unique way to attract visitors to the park, but they have also been very effective at their job. MacSwain showed two patches on either side of the road, one that had been grazed for the last three years and the other which had been left ungrazed. Garlic mustard had clearly overtaken the patch of land, while the other side had columbine, wild geraniums and plenty of shrubs and height.
“Some plants respond well to grazing, while others don’t,” explained MacSwain.
While the goats have been an overwhelmingly positive addition to the parks, there is no cure-all for this complex task.
“Some people get the idea that goats can do it all and are the only solution to managing plant diversity, but really it needs to be a combination of methods like goats and herbicides or burning,” said MacSwain.
Visitors to the Lake Elmo Regional Park will get a little more goat-time than Cottage Grove Ravine, whose goats will leave sometime in July. The 60 Lake Elmo goats will hang out until September.
According to MacSwain, the goats almost didn’t happen. There were rumblings and worries about what introducing goats could mean for the parks. So far the goats’ work has paid off and MacSwain feels like the park has made progress in supporting its plant diversity.
When watching the animals graze, they stare blankly off into the distance, one can’t help but laugh a little and also be reminded that some issues require surprisingly cute solutions.
Staff Writer Corinne Stremmel can be reached by calling 651-407-1226 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.