Goats are used by Madison Parks, Greenside Park , to reduce invasive species. Here Landscape Architect Sarah Close explains the program. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
VERONA – The Madison Parks Department’s newest hire isn’t who you’d normally guess would be out tending to designated recreation space.
It’s a herd of 40 goats, featuring 20 2-month-old kids still nursing from their mothers.
The goats are on loan to the parks department to help clear out invasive species of plants, like buckthorn and honeysuckle, which tend to grow large and kill native plant species, said Sarah Close, a land architect with the department.
The goats are roaming about on a roughly 2-acre piece of land, enclosed with electric fence, at Greenside Park, tucked away inside a quiet subdivision outside of the city.
The park, which doesn’t offer any amenities due to its steep inclines and small size, was overgrown and had to be managed, Close said, and the city decided to give goats a try instead of hand pulling the invasive plants, or treating the whole area with a herbicide.
“The main benefits of using the goats are obviously that we don’t have to use chemicals and there isn’t as much of an erosion risk because we don’t have to bring in large equipment,” she said.
After spending a few weeks at Greenside Park, the goats will be loaded back up and moved to Acewood Conservation Park on the other side of the city, to tackle some invasive plants there, Close said. Later this summer, the goats will return to Greenside, after the plants have had a chance to regrow.
In the meantime, residents around the park are taking the time to enjoy the animals, watching them as they leap from log to log, snacking on plants and trees as they go along.
‘Watch the goats all day’
The goats are rented to the city of Madison by HaakHagen Goat Grazing, a farm out of Poynette run by friends Greg Haak and Brooke Hushagen. The two, who both work in natural resources, started the business in 2016.
They have 88 goats — all of which they know by name — and rent them in groups of 20 to 40 to people looking to manage invasive species on their land. Mostly, the goats are rented to private landowners, but occasionally the goats are hired to do a job on public land, like in Madison.
HaakHagen Grazing was started to make invasive species management a little more accessible, Hushagen said. And they’re more fun.
“Goats are much more enjoyable,” she said. “They’re lighter on the land than machinery and they leave good stuff behind.”
To decide where the goats are placed each summer, during grazing months, the two work to ensure that the land will provide the animals with enough to eat. Some land just isn’t suitable, Haak said. If the brush is too tall, it’s too much for the goats to manage, he said, and they also don’t do well in open grass fields.
The goal of goat grazing is to stress the plants out over time, and eventually kill them, Haak said, so grazing isn’t just a one-time, one-season event. Goats may have to go back for years to help owners accomplish what they want from their land, he said.
And aside from serving a functional purpose, Haak and Hushagen find that their customers tend to straight up enjoy the animals as they work.
“Lots of times folks sit out in their lawn chairs and watch the goats all day,” she said.
The City of Madison isn’t the only government using goats to help clear up invasive plants.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has been using a herd of 50 to 60 of the quirky animals for the last 10 years to help preserve native prairie plants in rural Crawford County, at the Hogback Prairie State Natural Area.
Armund Bartz, the Driftless area ecologist with the DNR, said that the department decided to start using goats to cut down on the need for manpower to remove all the invasive species, which were choking out the naturally occurring prairie plants.
“We had to make a choice to lose it forever or try and do something more drastic than what we’ve done before,” he said. “And we heard about goats being effective.”
So now, each year, the goats are placed in the natural area and rotated between a series of paddocks. The goats will eat the invasive plants and shrubs, leaving behind the native plants underneath to get more sun. Once the paddock is cleared, the goats are moved to a new one, Bartz said. Each paddock gets two periods of grazing a summer, between mid-May and mid-October, when the goats are out.
Bartz said that he and other DNR employees get a kick out of working with the animals.
“It’s unbelievable how agile they are and what they can do,” he said. “They’re fun to watch. They’ve been a really interesting addition.”
Bartz said that the natural area will likely utilize the goats for only a few more summers, as the growth of invasive species has been mostly controlled through use of goats, controlled burning and herbicides.
A positive impact
After only about a week of grazing, the impact of the goats in Greenside Park is already visible. The undergrowth is shorter, and the goats have nibbled away the leaves on the bottom branches of the buckthorn trees.
And there haven’t been any issues with people bothering the goats at all, either, Close said.
“So far the response has been really positive,” she said. “Every once in a while, someone will pull up with their kid and stop by to look, but everyone’s been really respectful of the goats so far.”
She has noticed that the goats are a little spooked by dogs, but they normally just venture deeper into the two-acre park to get away.
Other than that, the goats are pretty non-intrusive, and just get down to business and eat. And while goats don’t end up saving much more money than the other ways of getting rid of invasive species, Close is glad the animals are in Madison.
“(We’re) just glad that we can try out different technologies and that the community is supportive of us trying it out,” she said.
Laura Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.
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