Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
In Brooklyn, Prospect Park is enlisting a herd to eat up invasive species that have proliferated since Hurricane Sandy.
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK—Around 11:30 a.m., the goats are dozing. Nearby, the midday sun is dappled through leafy canopies. But where the goats are—on a slope in the northeast segment of Prospect Park—there aren't as many trees to throw the light.
Over the last few years, this area of the park, known as the Vale of Cashmere, was battered by a spate of storms. When Hurricane Sandy tore through the New York area in the fall of 2012, the wind and rain pummeled grasses and shrubs. The storm splintered branches from tree trunks and yanked plants up by their roots; 50 mature trees were destroyed in this area alone. The park is still trying to recover. A nearby play area was constructed from the trunks and branches of the felled trees; they comprise the sides of a sandbox and a literal treehouse. But the trees' absence has been acutely felt—not least in the form of invasive species that have since proliferated. Park officials are hoping that goats—and, especially, their seemingly bottomless, multi-chambered stomachs—might offer a solution.
There’s a halo in the canopy where those trees used to be—and beneath that ring, non-native species, particularly English ivy and goutweed, have tightened their grip. Without the trees, the area is “open and exposed to sunlight, more air, more fertile territory for other things to grow,” says Sue Donoghue, the president of the Prospect Park Alliance. Unabated, English ivy can snake up tree trunks. As it grows, it may overtake branches and bark, throttling leaves by blocking the light they need to survive.
Invasive species can be swift and stubborn. One report from the USDA estimated that 79 percent of land in the U.S. could be hospitable to an invasion, which could choke out the native plants so crucial to sustaining pollinator populations. Donoghue says that Prospect Park has tried a number of tactics to curb the growth of invasive species—they’ve pulled the plants out by hand and resorted to chemicals and pesticides in “certain difficult or remote areas.” Other cities have tried flamethrowers and controlled burns. And now, Prospect Park is trying goats.
The eight-head herd recently arrived in the park to aid in restoration and bolstering efforts at an estimated cost of $15,000. Restoration projects in this area are funded by a $727,970 grant from National Parks Service through the Hurricane Sandy Disaster Relief Assistance Grant Program for Historic Properties. The goats will be at work throughout the summer, chowing down behind a chain-link fence on the invasive species that have proved tough to eradicate.
When I met them, they appeared sleepy. "They seem to lay around a lot," says Larry Cihanek, who supplied the herd from his Green Goats farm in Rhinebeck, New York. All that eating makes them tired. He says the ruminants nibble for 30 minutes at a time, then retreat to chew and digest their cud. Two or three hours later, they'll be ready for another helping. The goats, which weigh between 120-180 pounds, eat close to a quarter of their body weight each day. (But, Larry adds, "it's not like 20 pounds of steak.") For eight months out of the year, when they live on the farm in upstate New York, the goats mainly eat hay, Cihanek says; there's no vegetation on which to graze. Then, when they're assigned a job, they voraciously work through practically anything green—"they even like poison ivy or things with thorns," says Ann Cihanek, Larry’s wife. The park provides buckets of water. Soon after I arrived, a goat named Zoya and her two kids, Reese and Olivia, were climbing the slope, craning their necks to reach branches.
As a result of their voracious appetites, goats are often enlisted for landscaping jobs. They’ve mowed Arlington National Cemetery, in addition to parks in Boston and Pittsburgh. Cihanek’s farm has previously loaned goats for similar projects in Staten Island and the Gateway National Recreation Area. Goat crews offer several advantages: They can scramble up uneven terrain that’s hard for humans and tools to navigate. They also have a neutral ecological footprint, compared with other interventions. Hand-weeding can unintentionally disperse seeds, which sprout up elsewhere; herbicides can render some areas off-limits. At a press conference Wednesday, Leslie Wright, the regional director of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, congratulated the park on their new "small-carbon-footprinted workforce." And, for their part, the goats seem happy to pitch in. “Eating for a living is a goat’s dream job. I’d sure like to do it,” Ann Cihanek recently told the New York Post.
Sometimes, though, these landscaping experiments go awry. In February, a herd of 75 goats in Salem, Oregon, was dismissed after the nibblers ate their way through native plants in addition to the invasive ones they were tasked with decimating. Turned loose to tackle Armenian blackberry and English ivy, the goats also munched on tree bark and native shrubs, The Guardian reported. A report prepared by the city’s public works department also complained of a “barnyard aroma.” Speaking with the Statesman Journal, Mark Becktel, the city’s public works operations manager, was even more candid about the problem, describing the site as “a heavily-fertilized area…If you know what I mean.”
In Prospect Park, the goats are part of a multi-pronged approach to fostering resiliency before future storms. Donoghue says that once the invasive species have been removed, the park is eyeing strategies for girding the land against future damage by adding soil and plants to strengthen the terrain. By replanting native species and stabilizing the slope, the park will “make what we plant more tolerant of heavy rain,” she says.
Since they’ll be fenced off from vulnerable native species, Donoghue isn’t concerned about the goats going rogue. Nor is she worried about passersby distracting the furry laborers from their work; she doesn’t think it will devolve into a petting zoo. “The goats are going about doing what they’re interested in doing,” she says. “We think they’ll be kept busy.”