Photos: Ingrid Pullen
At Zaytuna Farm we have been using our Boer meat goats to fast-track the weed-tree-infested forested valleys’ succession and reforestation with a diversity of high quality tree species. This is being done around the pasture edges of the valleys and the gullies between our pastures, which are dominated by weed tree inundations of small and large leaf privet, camphor laurel and lantana.
We realise that if we let the weed species go through their successional sequences that they would over time give way to large native forest canopy species — the latter eventually pushing through and shading out the weed trees, and taking control of the canopy. This natural process takes time — in fact, about 90 years to complete canopy dominance back into native tree species — and in the interim it is very difficult to work amongst these weed species to physically cut and clear tree planting sites, using them for mulch and spot planting high quality forest trees of choice, along with the ongoing maintenance of holding back the dominance of weed species to advantage our plantings. We have done it and we have had some results and know how much hard work it takes to achieve.
I have always spent a lot of time thinking about the earth care ethic, and that intrinsic to earth care is the life ethic that all living things have an intrinsic worth. As goes the words of advice that I received from my long time friend and mentor, the great herbalist Isabel Shipard, "if you look out at the environment and hate anything it will haunt you forever". Goats are often hated for their destruction of trees and their effects on landscapes, especially drylands, towards extending desertification, so I was curious as to how I could design goats into a system so they had the opposite effect — of being a major help in reforestation instead.
We have kept both milking goats and meat goats for many years and we know they are definitely ideally suited to 60% mixed pasture herbage and 40% tree forage. They are happiest and healthiest if they have a good mixture, and they will eat many plants and tree leaves that are considered toxic without any health problems. They will stand as high as they can on their back legs and stretch their necks and extend their tongues to reach every last leaf they can, so as to digest a great variation of foliage. So it is true that goats will eat a great diversity of elements that most other domestic animals will not eat, but their preference is a balance of elements starting with the most dominant and prolific leaves within their fenced area.
So we converted a car trailer into a mobile goat house and invested in four lengths of electric net fencing — 50m long each — connected to a solar-powered electric fence unit, so that we can encircle an area 2,500 m2 in size, and proceeded to fence our goat flock into areas with 60% pasture and 40% weed-tree-infested forest edge. The goats then get to work and within a few days the sight line through the lower forest edge starts to clear and a few days later they start to stand on their back legs to reach up and eat the weed tree leaves. At this stage, before they run out of reachable leaves and begin eating the bark of the quality trees in their enclosed area, we start to cut some of the weed trees down for them to get extra forage, starting with the easiest and smallest trees first.
The goats quickly learn that each morning from this point onwards we are going to arrive to cut food down for them. As we do this we start to accumulate large amounts of small twig mulch on the forest floor, and large amounts of piled up larger branches and trunks which we allow to dry before using as firewood in our wood ovens, rocket stoves and biochar production. When we run out of weed trees to cut we move the goats on to the next section to start all over, and the first stage of the cycle is complete. We also do a final cut of all the stumps, close to the ground, with an abusive cut to stress the weed trees’ root systems, to discourage their re-sprouting as a coppice. Despite this, many will re-sprout, and within a few months they are at a height of around 2m, which is a good foraging height for the goats. So we then bring the goats back for a second cycle, which is quicker than the first, with no requirement for us to cut manually, except once the goats have eaten everything that has re-sprouted, and we have moved them on again, we abusively trim the weed tree stumps down again.
This cycle is repeated three or four times, at which stage the weed tree stumps start to get so weak and stressed they start to die. At this point we can stop the goat cycles and intensively plant in the forest trees we desire to take over, while continuing to slash the ever diminishing coppice re-sprouting — using it for mulch on our high quality emerging forest.
The goats do their job well, converting the weed trees into manure and goat meat, and, with some help from us, firewood. And those nutrient cycles, along with the weed tree stump abuse, speed up the successional cycles towards the high quality forest trees of our selection and choice.