Goats: New Gardeners at the Greenbelt

Posted on 25 June 2014


The greenbelt goats feasting on invasive plants. Photography by Mara Certic.

By Mara Certic

Contrary to popular belief, paper, clothes and cardboard do not make up a goat’s dream menu. So what’s a goat’s top choice of snack? Autumn olives and Japanese knotweed it turns out, much to the satisfaction of the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt.

In early May, six goats made their way from a farm in Rhinebeck to Vineyard Field, a 39-acre property in the Greenbelt that is preserved by Southampton Town. The field, which sits behind the South Fork Natural History Museum, has been in danger of being taken over by various invasive plants, in particular Autumn olives, Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard and the mile-a-minute vine.

Nine years ago FLPG began a grassland restoration project in an effort to protect the field’s endangered ecosystem. The restoration process benefits mammals, reptiles, insects, birds and even endangered, less aggressive, local plants.

FLPG have received enough grants and donations over the years to fund professional land clearing companies to come in and remove Autumn olives from 30 acres of the field; volunteers even come by the field to remove the pesky plants by hand, and an annual mowing program is also on the budget.

“Our problem is that turtles are nesting, and there are so many birds. We can’t mow enough to control it,” said Dai Dayton, president of the Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt. “So this is the alternative,” she said, pointing to the six, happy goats that ran over to greet her as she approached the area that they’re currently landscaping.GOATYGOAT

The town donated $3,500 to the FLPG to pay for their new gardeners. The goats were raised in Upstate New York by Ann and Larry Cihanek, who run “Green Goats.” The motto of their company is “We use what nature provides to get rid of what nature provides too much of.”

The Cihaneks raise and bottle-feed the goats as kids and keep them warm in a barn for the winter. When summer approaches, however, the goats go off to work. The Cihaneks send their goats to 14 different locations in the Northeast from May to October to help maintain parks, preservations and landmarks in an environmentally friendly way.

The greenbelt was the first Long Island destination for the Green Goats, which are involved in projects in Staten Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Since the decision to bring them here, two more places on Long Island have decided to bring in the four-legged foragers.

Money from the town has gone to set up an area for the goats, surrounded by a solar-powered electric fence. “At first they were in a much smaller area, and they ate the whole thing!” said Ms. Dayton. In their first month, the goats cleared all of the Autumn olive out of one section of the field. The invasive plant is already rebudding, so Ms. Dayton said that she’ll just move the goats back over to their original spot to nip those plants in the bud.

“But now they’re in six acres,” she said. “That’ll take them the whole summer to eat. But they’re doing a good job. They really are.”

Ms. Dayton said that, even though the goats have been doing a spectacular job, they will have to come back again next summer to completely rid the field of the meddlesome flora.

Goats have the reputation of being extraordinarily undiscerning when it comes to food. A reputation that is not necessarily deserved, it turns out; goats are browsers, rather than grazers, meaning that they smell and touch virtually every potential foodstuff with their muzzles before ingesting it, which gives the impression of them munching away on virtually everything.

Sandy Ferguson, a volunteer in the field, had a pet goat around 15 years ago who had a very sophisticated palate. One day, she said, as she finished her work for the day she poured herself an afternoon aperitif and went outside to visit with her pet. Before she had a chance to realize what was happening, she went to take a sip of her drink only to see that the goat had lapped up every last drop of her dark rum and orange juice.

Latte, Chocolate, Big Mama and the other Nubian and Toggenburg goats of the greenbelt do not live that life of leisure. “Sure, people can come by and see them,” Ms. Dayton said as she scratched Big Mama’s ears and complimented her in a voice one usually only hears in the company of puppies and babies. “But people need to remember that they’re not pets. They’re here to work.”




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