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'Eat, goats. Eat!'

Herd tackles invasive vine to the delight of neighbors

Susan Reimer

10:57 AM PDT, October 10, 2012

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In an age when there are "baby apps" for the iPad and HBO is reissuing classic children's books as made-for-TV musicals, it's nice just to take the kids to visit some goats. Some hard-working, big-eating goats.

My husband and I spent a weekend soloing as handlers for Mikey, the 22-month-old grandson with the halo of blond curls, and when a friend spotted a herd of goats along the side of a road, we were off. There's nothing toddlers like more than barnyard animals that are roughly the same size they are.

"Goats! Eat!" Mikey shouted, and he was quite right. But there was more to it than that.

A herd of 28 goats had been hired by Anne Arundel County to tackle a veritable forest of kudzu, an invasive and fast-growing vine that is threatening to cover over even the houses and parked cars in Epping Forest, a neighborhood outside Annapolis.

The goats were midway through a six- or seven-day stay, safely behind an electric fence, and as we watched, they were eating their way through a wall of kudzu, stripping the leaves and leaving a network of vines that will be treated with an herbicide after the goats are safely away.

Watching the flock from nearby was Brian Knox, owner of Eco-Goats. When one of the goats got her leg caught in some vines and appeared to be limping, he was quickly out of his truck to make sure she wasn't injured.

Mr. Knox and his friend, Richard Garden, have two teams of about 30 goats each working out of Mr. Garden's Davidsonville farm, and they are plenty busy from April until October, eating their way through vegetation nobody wants. Goats have been used to clear foliage in the Pacific Northwest for years, but few companies do it on the East Coast, Mr. Knox said.

They work on public and private property as kind of a natural defoliant for tree farmers, for homeowners associations, for those who own waterfront property. "Or people who have thrown up their hands and said, 'I quit,'" Mr. Knox said. They can handle steep or rocky slopes — places a mower could not go.

Mr. Knox has never seen any numbers on goats, but if deer can be expected to eat 10 pounds of foliage a day, goats probably eat that much or more.

In perhaps three visits, they can exhaust — and kill off — the root system of an invasive by forcing it to produce multiple rounds of foliage in a single season. Most of the time, however, they visit once and strip the leaves so the humans can use an herbicide more effectively.

It was a good spring for the company, and 35 kids were born — a generation that will grow up in the business, as it were.

"They will grow up learning how to forage from mom," Mr. Knox explained. "We have some that were pets, and they never learned how to eat like a goat. As grazers, they are useless. But they are very friendly. Like dogs."

The goats eat pretty much all day and sometimes in the middle of the night, punctuating their eating with what he calls "power naps," sleeping so soundly that you might wonder if they are still breathing. If they have eaten anything from the laurel family, they might not be. Those are toxic to goats and can be hidden under a mound of kudzu.

All of the goats have ear tags for identification, and some of them have names, too. "The ones that have a whole lot of charisma or the ones that are a pain to work with," said Mr. Knox. "It is like high school. Keep your head down and do your job and nobody notices you."

Traveling with his goats has presented some cultural challenges. When working in a Philadelphia neighborhood this summer where a number of Middle Eastern families live, he had offers from residents who wanted to buy a goat.

Speaking of food, I asked if there were any other by-products of the goat's work. Like goat's milk or goat cheese. But Mr. Knox looked at me like a man who has enough to do just carting goats all over the place.

A small crowd of curious drivers had pulled off the road to see the goats. Many, like us, brought children to see this startling project — a natural solution to a man-made problem.

"Goats! Eat!" Mikey shouted again.

Yes, they certainly do.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at susan.reimer@baltsun.com and @Susan Reimer on Twitter.com. For video of the goats at work, visit baltimoresun.com./opinion.

Earlier version of this article misspelled Brian Knox's last name. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

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