It turns out that goats, and their voracious appetites and hearty digestive systems, are pretty good for Maryland’s wetlands.
On Wednesday morning a herd of around 20 of the four-legged eating machines were unleashed on Whitehall Bay’s shores where they were crucial players in an effort to eliminate invasive plants.
Their job? Eat their way through a ¼-acre lot filled with phragmites, an invasive grass that arrived from Europe in the 19th century. After the goats do their thing, volunteers will hand-plant native grasses to help reclaim the shoreline.
Gaby Marquez, a rising sophomore at St. Mary’s High School, organized the project and paid for it with a $5,000 grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust and matching funds from her neighborhood’s homeowners association. She said she wants to eventually have a career in environmental protection and this seemed like a good way to enjoy her passion.
The herd was taken from their trailer into a temporary corral at the water’s edge in St. Margaret’s Pleasant Plains neighborhood. Some of the reeds were about three times as tall as the biggest goats and this summer’s rainstorms made the vegetation green and lush.
But through a combination of trampling and voracious eating the vegetation in the community association-owned land was visibly thinner within minutes. It will take about three days for the goats to eat their way through the lot their owner, said Mary Bowen, president of Browsing Green Goats in Sunderland.
Goats are ideal for this type of work, Bowen said. Not only can they eat all day, but between their dental structure and digestive system they destroy the plants’ seeds, so it’s impossible for a second generation of grasses to sprout from the animal’s droppings "When they chew and bite, they’re dismantling the seeds in there,” Bowen said.
One alternative, mowing, doesn’t completely eliminate seeds while another option, herbicides, can pollute the water and harm nearby landscaping, she said.
Goats are efficient grazers, but Kevin Haines, president of Holly Oak Consulting, an environmental engineering firm working pro bono on the project, said it’s unusual to see those animals eat the invasive grasses.
“I’ve never seen goats used in Anne Arundel County to remove phragmites,” he said.
People will often excavate areas filled with non-native species, a method that effectively eliminates the unwelcomed plants but destroys the subsoil in the process. Goats, he said, don’t come with that side effect.
The next phase of the project will begin on Saturday when a team of volunteers returns to the waterfront to plant two native grasses. Haines they’ll hopefully “out-compete” the invasive species. It will take about two years for the plants to grow and determine if the project was success.
While the professionals extolled the virtues of the goats’ ruminant digestive system and their gentle touch on the landscape, Ramirez, looking at the herd, pointed out a quality that’s not attributed to mowers, excavators and herbicides.
“They’re adorable,” she said.