Maggie – this is for you but also for the many others who I know have an interest in grazing animals in landscape management.
Goats do indeed make the most amazing scrub clearance “machines”. My agreement with Devon Wildlife Trust for managing the Culm grassland actually stipulates their use in managing this area. Marie, my case officer, has seen what my animals have done here already.
The myth that goats eat anything and everything is just that, a myth along with the common belief that they are escape artists. To deal with the first point. Goats are BROWSERS not grazers so think “deer” not “sheep” for their likely eating pattern in a particular area. Given the choice, like deer, goats will wander over a very large area taking a few mouthfuls of a huge range of plant material as they go. Small trees and shrubs at head height will be targetted, then low branches of trees that the goats can reach standing on their hind legs and finally bark on trunks. Older trees with a diameter of 50cms plus are generally fairly safe from bark stripping unless a) they are damaged and the bark torn, or b) the goats are very hungry and there is nothing else. However you can soon see if they are taking an unhealthy interest in tree trunks and move them on – it is NEVER the first thing they do.
My experience is that brambles generally are the first thing to go. They absolutely love the taste. Leaves are stripped within a matter of moments of going into a bramble patch leaving a forest of barbed, arching stalks. The regrowth is eaten as soon as it appears and within one season most brambles will be gone. Like nettles, they are vigorous beasties but can’t stand being eaten off more than once. Cashmeres with their long guard hair coats seem to manage well among the thorns without getting hung up although how totally beats me! When you think of the mess sheep would get themselves into!!! The goats force their way through what seem like impenetrable thickets, opeing up pathways and letting in the light as they go. Exactly the same applies to gorse. Even little kids will chew their way through gorse stems in an eye watering fashion. Once they have a clear path to the gorse stem goats will strip the bark from this and ring the bush killing it within a season or two. Bracken is tackled with gusto particularly when young but, although goats are very resistent to bracken poisoning (and most plant toxins in fact) you must ensure they can be selective. Don’t confine them to a bracken slope with absolutely nothing else there for them.
This photo shows the same bracken slope with goats one side of the fence but not the other. The difference in just a few short weeks is already noticeable.
This shows the goats belly deep in water managing the reedmace (bullrushes) in our shallow lake. They will also eat soft rush which is a nightmare here although they leave it until last and tackle it more in the winter. Much like deer they will take a few bites off the top in passing but will not graze it out unless there is nothing else. To control rush close confinement to one area at a time would be advisable.
This shows what is possible with soft rush if you confine the goats. In the foreground is goat grazing – in the rear is goats now but three years of sheep grazing prior to that. This was a controlled experiment at the research home farm of my flock in Scotland.
This is a classic view on our farm. Gorse in the background and bramble and bracken in the front.
The same view in autumn after a couple of weeks of goat grazing. This old field which had been allowed to revert to scrub is gradually being brought back under control by the goats. We don’t allow free access here because of the wealth of plant material but the goats go in at certain times in the cycle of things. We have patches of Devil’s Bit Scabious, Common Cow Wheat and various Orchids which we hope will begin to spread now that the gorse, bramble and bracken are being removed. It also shows the slope here. It’s impossible to get any machinery in as it’s too steep and boggy in places. Goats are ideal in these areas.
This picture shows the same view before any goats at all were introduced. Compare with the one immediately above to see what an effect goats can have!!!
Obviously you have to manage the animals correctly. This means fencing in and out appropriately. The key thing is that goats will not wander away from an area which has plenty for then a)to eat and b) to do. They are natural scrub animals with a lively intelligence which keeps them out of trouble usually. If however, they run out of food options that is the point where they may test fencing to get to the area on the other side. A very clear understanding of what they eat and at what point a goat will consider they have “finished” a particular patch is essential to avoid this. For example – if you are grazing grassy areas, sheep will eat down to the roots, goats will always, given the choice, leave 5cms plus and move on. It’ s essential to observe animals closely and move them on before they get to this point.
Most people who have trouble with goats escaping are managing them poorly and often do not understand their true needs. Plain grass fields are the last resort for goats. Given a choice they would rather be anywhere else since it’s not their natural habitat and grass will always be second best food for them. Browse is the ideal diet, not neat fields of rye grass.
This has been a long post but worth doing I think to explain the potential of these animals in managing areas which are difficult by other means. A small hit squad of a dozen goats plus a mobile electric fence on a farm can be an invaluable tool but you will need to spend time getting to know and understand them to make the best use of their abilities.