Roam, chew, charm, repeat
Cashmere goats at McMaster Forest might be the most hardworking and friendly weed killers you’ll ever meet
THE DOORS OPEN and Mona, May, Ella, Aurora, and Hildy hop out of a van and into their field of dreams.
In the tall grass, the cashmere goats find their food. They will gnaw on shrubby buckthorn, trefoil, phragmites and knotweed.
These invasive species are thugs of conservation lands, parks and gardens, turning rich habitats into ones dominated by single species.
Here at the 115-acre McMaster Forest on Lower Lions Cub Road near Main Street West, the goats are using their appetite to help restore plant diversity.
“Goats are browsers, not grazers,” Wayne Terryberry is telling a group of McMaster University students standing in what used to be a potato field. “They prefer to eat shrubs and new shoots of trees. The grazers (cows and deer) like grass and lowgrowing plants.”
Terryberry is co-ordinator of outdoor recreation and natural lands at McMaster. He and assistant Martha Killian are demonstrating how goats
can replace weed killers to control invasive species that push out beneficial plants.
In fact, the goats need very little help doing their job. The congenial little cashmere goats are gentle, friendly and love the company of humans.
The five working in the McMaster Forest are part of Terryberry’s own herd of 30 that he keeps on his farm in Carluke. When they’re not weeding, they just look adorable and bulk up their cashmere coats for shearing.
“They’re a winter-hardy breed and really adapt to just about anything. They love to climb, and they’re always game to go on a trail walk here.”
The McMaster Forest is a hidden gem. Next to the open field, a trail runs around the perimeter, passing through about 25,000 trees being inventoried by students.
“The ash trees dominate, but there are some interesting trees like butternut and eastern dogwood and old-growth-sized maples, oaks and hemlocks,” says Noah Stegman, environmental science student at McMaster and co-ordinator of the conservation corridor.
After McMaster bought the farm and it was no longer worked, the invasive trees and shrubs moved in. That’s when the goats started punching the time clock.
It took about a year to cut down 10 acres of the nuisance buckthorn trees that formed a dense thicket. When the trees were cleared, the goats were on duty in the field, eating new buckthorn seedlings that threatened to repeat their aggressive takeover of the land. A herd of goats can clear an acre in a week.
Now in addition to their browsing duties, the goats are teaching students about sustainable ways to restore habitat diversity.
“This is just awesome,” Priya Moraes, a political science and anthropology student, says as she holds one of the four-month-old baby goats. “It’s so great to get out of the classroom and see new ideas in the field.”
Most of the students being charmed by the goats are focused on conservation biology and learning more through the CityLAB program, a sustainability think-tank created by McMaster, Redeemer University College, Mohawk College and the City of Hamilton.
But it’s one thing to look at spreadsheets and studies, and quite another to be roaming with the goats.
“I wish more people could see this,” McMaster student Grace Bryson says. “This seems like a great alternative to using herbicides.”
Everyone here agrees the goats could go on tour to show the concept of natural weed control. In the confines of the McMaster Forest, what the goats eat and what they ignore is being studied. That could help with the intriguing idea of using goats to weed home gardens.
“You’d need to have a portable fence,” Terryberry points out. And you’d need to make sure the goats don’t gobble prized plants like rhododendrons or lilacs. But the idea of goats controlling Japanese knotweed, for instance, is delicious. The bamboo-like knotweed is a brute to eradicate, but goat grazing suppresses its growth.
While most of their work is done at the McMaster Forest, the cashmere goats still visit their outdoor classroom three or four times a year where they roam, chew and charm anyone they meet.
The goats were on duty in the field, eating new buckthorn seedlings that threatened to repeat their aggressive takeover of the land. “They’re a winter-hardy breed and really adapt to just about anything. They love to climb and they’re always game to go on a trail walk here.” WAYNE TERRYBERRY Co-ordinator, outdoor recreation and natural lands, McMaster
Aurora, a friendly cashmere goat owned by Wayne Terryberry, at work in McMaster Forest, a 115-acre site used for the university’s conservation research.
Cashmere goats like Aurora can replace weed killers to control invasive species that push out beneficial plants Watch video thespec.com