While vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts last summer, our family decided to go on a wooded hike through Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary that would lead us to a secluded beach. After hiking through a dense landscape for about half an hour, we were shocked to suddenly come upon high fences that appeared to be keeping something out…or perhaps in. We continued to hike and became aware of strange sounds coming from the other side of the fence. In addition to the odd noises, we noticed the complete lack of vegetation there. It was in clear conflict with the lush green habitat surrounding us. Finally, we came upon the inhabitants of the fence – a small herd of goats!

They were quite friendly and came right over to see us. We watched as they proceeded to clear the leaves from the trees and the ground of the prickly, thorny bushes that covered everything other than the sandy path in front of us. We assumed we were watching an example of goatscaping because we had seen signs for it all over the island – but it wasn’t until recently that I learned how easily goatscaping can work in conjunction with permaculture.

Goatscaping is not exactly a new idea, although it does appear to be a fairly localized concept in the United States for right now, with the state of Massachusetts leading the way in the Northeast. There are a few main goatscaping companies throughout the state, all working to eliminate invasive or nuisance plant species, while helping to complement landscaping techniques. Most of us are aware that goats will eat pretty much anything, and many harmful plants are no exception.

Poison ivy, poison sumac, blackberry bushes, and other difficult types of vines and briars are easily edible and even tasty for goats. Come to find out that the goats at Cedar Tree Neck Sanctuary were clearing the conservation land of bittersweet. Elsewhere on the island, this technique has been used as an alternative to mowing in areas where box turtles nest, and to reclaim historic pastureland that has otherwise become unusable. How does goatscaping work and why is it preferred over the use of manpower?

Goat feeding high in the branches of a tree in Morocco

According to The Goastscaping Company, a small herd of goats (about 4) can clear a quarter to a third of an acre of land within a week. While other companies believe this number of goats could clear up to a whole acre in that time. The goats clear everything that’s green from 4-6 inches to 5-6 feet off the ground, reaching as far as they can with their long legs. They are also willing to climb onto uneven terrain to forage what they can. They will work over rocky terrain, up stone walls, and through thick “jungles” of vegetation that would normally be impossible for humans to trek through. The goats are fenced in using a high electricity fence (which also keeps out unwanted predators) that can be powered using solar energy.

In addition to the fence, the goats also need fresh water daily and a bit of grain, in case they prefer other meal options than the vegetation surrounding them. The goats leave behind low cover vegetation, along with manure – which works wonders for the soil biology of the area. Goat manure is odorless and leaves behind no seeds, preventing invasive plants from reseeding. It is also more nitrogen-rich than that of cows or horses. Improving the soil thus discourages the presence of the nuisance plants that were there originally.

Goatscaping is a way of effectively managing lands in a carbon-friendly manner. Without using herbicides or heavy machinery there is no extra burden on the atmosphere. This method also works to protect native plants that serve as pollinator habitats, giving a much needed hand to local insect species. In a time where being eco-friendly is “in,” using animals to clear land in a quiet, natural way is concept many are ready to back. The unique and distinctive quality of this type of landscaping also makes it interesting and attractive to those looking to expand their options for clearing land.

Honestly, people have been using this technique from the dawn of agriculture. The novel thing is the use of goats in urban and suburban areas. In and around the busy city of Boston, goats have been used to clear vegetation around a State Hospital, in order to improve sight lines for security surveillance, and to cut back a heavily wooded area in a local park that might not otherwise have been used, and that the state didn’t have the volunteer manpower to clear. Goatscaping indeed seems complementary with the ideals of permaculture. If local permaculturists can get on board with this technique, they might even discover new ways to utilize these animals while also giving back to the local landscapes.

And, as some permaculturists may have already discovered, if you want to fully clear a patch of land – bring in a group of pigs after the goats have done their work. They will take care of the roots of the plants!

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