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Charlottesville hires 'Goat Busters' to combat invasive plant species

Invasive plant species are encroaching on Charlottesville’s green spaces.

To fight back, the city is enlisting goats. They’ll start on Monday at Washington Park.

“The middle of Washington Park is overgrown with just about every invasive plant you can imagine,” Steve Gaines, the city’s urban forester, told The Daily Progress. “You cannot walk through it. It’s like an impenetrable wall.”

Enter Goat Busters, a local company that uses kiko goats to clear unwanted brush.

“Everything green and soft that they can reach is subject to their consumption,” owner Jace Goodling told The Daily Progress.

Goodling has an army of 110 goats at his disposal. He expects to unleash 40 of them onto Washington Park where they will feast upon invasive plant species such as kudzu, bush honeysuckle, autumn olive, tree of heaven and more.

The goats are the most recent weapon the city is deploying in its ongoing war against invasive species.

Gaines said the city has recently allotted $75,000 a year for controlling the unwelcome plant life.

These plants are problematic not just because they grow faster than native species and disturb wildlife, but because they can kill trees.

“The big goal is to increase the city’s tree canopy, which is one of main objectives in the climate action plan,” Gaines said.

But why has the city chosen goats to combat the scourge instead of a crew armed with weed whackers?

“In my experience, we’re probably cheaper,” Goodling said with a laugh. “But to take a more idealistic view, it’s obviously a much more environmentally friendly approach.”

If the city used machinery to remove the horticultural jungle, the shredded brush would be placed in a pile in the middle of the park. But with a goat army’s appetite, the brush will not only be swallowed whole, but they will convert it into fertilizer.

“You’re getting a more holistic benefit out of an otherwise waste of vegetation. As light-weight cloven-hooved animals, they’ll tear up the top inch of soil and work the fertilizer into the soil,” Goodling said. “The grand idea is it gives native species and desired species better soil conditions to grow and prosper.”

Gaines said residents should know that the goats are not a one-off, but rather part of a plan designed to remove invasive species and replace them with trees.

“The use of goats in this regard is very well-documented, particularly given the proximity to the pool. There’s going to be a lot of people around, so we don’t want the removal to be very loud with a bunch of heavy machinery.”

Goats are but one tool, Gaines said. Others include chemicals and heavy machinery.

In this case, the city elected to use goats in part because the targeted area of the park is so densely overgrown and located on a slope.

“Goats are maneuverable, and they will be very thorough,” Gaines said. “This is kind of a good way to acquaint the public with the option.”

The goats will make the area much more accessible for the city to later come in and spray the unwanted plants with herbicides. Without the goats, Gaines and his colleagues would have to use more chemicals.

The plan is to have the goats feast for a week, then let the plants resprout in the fall. As those plants try to grow, they’ll be seeking nutrients to prepare for their dormant season in the winter. That’s when the city will employ targeted herbicides. The plants will mistake the herbicides for nutrients, absorbing the chemicals into their roots, leading to the plants’ demise.

“This is timed by design,” Gaines said. “We have a plan and are following the plan. We’re not just doing it willy-nilly.”

Goat Busters has a plan too.

“I tell people it’s not rocket science, but there is a science to it,” Goodling said of the goat business.

His 40-goat estimate is not a guess but rather a calculation. If he puts all of his goats on the job, they’ll start to eat too much and begin ripping bark from trees. If he doesn’t send enough goats, they won’t feel as though they must compete for food; they’ll take their sweet time and never finish the work.

“My job is knowing how many to put in to make all the green disappear without starting to kill trees,” Goodling said.

As Goodling sees it, it’s practical, sustainable, affordable and also a little fun.

“We enjoy it looking at it from an agri-tainment perspective. A bunch of city kids down there playing all summer, when’s the last time they saw a goat?” Goodling asked. “And in this day and age, America’s youth has gotten so far removed from agriculture in any way, shape or form.”

The park cleanup will begin Monday morning, commemorated by the “Running of the Goats,” which Goodling called his favorite part of the job. With the goats loaded into a trailer, the company will release them down a chute into the targeted area of the park.

The event has parallels to Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls, but “a lot safer and you don’t have to wear any funny clothes,” according to Goodling.

Goat Busters will visit the area in advance to set up an electric fence so the animals do not wander from the site.

“We’re putting up crowd fencing to keep the more curious, less intelligent members of the crowd away from the electric fence,” Goodling added.

While the electric fence is not life-threatening, he strongly advises no one touch it.

“I’ve been hit thousands of times and sometimes it’ll lay your ass right on the ground,” Goodling said. “It doesn’t kill you, but it does teaches you not to touch the fence real fast.”

Goodling’s primary job is in custom home construction. But he finds his goat side hustle to be a lot more fun.

So is his business’ name.

“I came up with it myself. I honestly can’t say it was a sober moment, but it stuck. You got kudzu, you got poison ivy, who you gonna call? … Goat Busters, man.”


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