How to train your goat (to fight invasive species)
Baah'd Plant Management & Reclamation goat browsing (Photo by NCC)
Jackie Bastianon was the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) 2018 communications intern for the Alberta Region. She is currently studying journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa and hopes to use her writing skills to compel people to care about the environment as much as she does.
Many areas around Alberta, including some Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) properties, are plagued with invasive weeds, such as thistle, which take resources and space away from important native species. Techniques for weed removal include chemical spray, which can also affect native species, or manually pulling the weeds, which takes a lot of time and effort. Jeanette Hall, owner of Baah'd Plant Management & Reclamation, has found another solution: a herd of weed-eating goats.
Although this may seem like an unusual solution, goats are browsers and not grazers, like cows and horses. A browser eats a plant from the top down, consuming materials like seeds, bark and broad leaves, while a grazer clips vegetation near ground level. By destroying these parts of the plant, the plant weakens and, after a couple of sessions of being browsed by goats, may die off completely.
Goats and weeds, weeds and goats
Before starting Baah’d Plant Management & Reclamation in 2015, Jeanette had never worked with goats before. Three years later, she has a herd of around 1,000 goats of eight different breeds.
Although these are working animals, they are also adored pets. Jeanette knows each individual animal by name. Even when a herd of hundreds is roaming a meadow, she is able to pick out and name every goat in what appears to be a sea of brown and white fur.
Jeannette uses a couple of ways to teach her goats how to target certain plants.
One method is by hand feeding select weeds to the goats. Doing this creates a relationship with the animals, and also conditions them to believe the weed being presented is a special treat. When the goats are later released into a field containing these weeds, they will actively seek them out and ignore other species.
Another way is to exclusively feed the weed to the goats until they begin to accept it as food. For baby goats this can be a very effective method because babies learn from their parents; once the parents begin to eat it, the babies will as well.
Jeanette’s herd has more than a decade of browsing experience and are trained to target 75 specific species of weeds.
Land and goat management
Jeanette takes the safety of her goats very seriously. To prevent her herd from either contracting or spreading diseases, she has very strict rules for her animals. People cannot pet her goats when they are working, the trailers she transports her animals in are extensively cleaned, and the pasture in which she keeps her goats is not adjacent to any other animal’s pasture.
Baah'd Plant Management & Reclamation goats (Photo by NCC)
“That’s how I guarantee to my clients that we are not a health risk,” she said.
Before turning a herd loose on a site, Jeanette does a safety assessment of the site to makes sure it’s equipped with enough water and shade for the goats to thrive. She also assesses the logistics of the site by determining what type of weeds grow there and how many weeds are in the area.
Not all sites are suitable for goats, however. Smaller sites might not be worth the cost of travel, and bigger sites need larger herds or more browsing days to make a worthwhile impact.
Jeanette chooses with care the sites where she brings her goats. She says that it's important to pay attention to the soil. She wants to ensure that when the weeds are removed, the native plants are able to thrive instead of being overrun by weeds again several weeks later.
A new industry
The ultimate goal for Jeanette’s weed-eating goats is to help foster a new industry where goats can be used as a tool to help with land management and restoration.
“We aren’t just bringing the goats in; we are creating a holistic rehabilitation of the site," said Jeanette. “I want to see this become the norm.”
The Conservation Internship Program is funded in part by the Government of Canada’s Summer Work Experience program.