Clemson goats say goodbye – with full bellies and a job well done
CLEMSON — Clemson University bade farewell to 40 of its hardest workers Monday, but there was no sorrow. Negotiations are already under way to bring them back in the near future.
For the third straight year, a herd of hungry goats came to the campus to devour dense tangles of invasive plants that have plagued portions of the campus for decades. This year, males of various sizes and breeds arrived on May 18 and — within the confines of an electric fence — went about the business of eating just about everything within reach that was green.
Immune to poison ivy and impervious to the sharpest of thorns, the voracious ruminants chowed down on kudzu and a slew of other non-native species that bordered three and a half acres along the seventh hole of Walker Golf Course, as well as a two-acre stretch of forested area on Kappa Street between Lee Hall and the Strom Thurmond Institute.
“The golfers took it in stride. They’d come over and visit with the goats,” said Jeremy Pike, a Clemson scientist who is nearing the completion of his Ph.D. in forestry and environmental conservation. “And the stretch leading up to Strom Thurmond is a gorgeous hardwood forest that, until now, has been obscured by the thickness of the invasive species. When football season arrives, fans walking along that road on their way to the stadium will be able to see the full beauty of the trees for the first time in many years.”
The research project began Aug. 30, 2014, when goats on loan from Ron Searcy of Wells Farm in Horse Shoe, North Carolina, were released into an area adjacent to Hunnicutt Creek. The herd returned in 2015 and again this year. Clemson researchers Pike, Cal Sawyer and Donald Hagan, along with campus landscape director Tommy Fallaw, have played leading roles in the project.
“This year has been largely successful. We’re really happy,” Pike said. “We hope to continue to do this for years to come. There are a lot of invasive species on this campus. Kudzu, especially, is a beast to deal with, but the goats are up to the task. What they’ve done thus far has been amazing.”
Now that the goats are gone, a pair of Clemson undergraduate students will spend the next four to six weeks removing debris and sprucing up. Since the goats have penetrated the lower portions of the understory, the openings will allow the student workers to use a combination of hand tools and strategically applied herbicides to control existing and future growth. In the two previous years, Pike and his team relied mostly on volunteers to perform this work.
“It’s wonderful to have volunteer help, but it takes a lot of management to keep everything going and organized,” Pike said. “We talked to our friends in Clemson University Facilities and decided that it made more sense to have people specifically assigned to do the follow-up work. So we’ve contacted some students who are going to forestry camp right now, and they’re very interested. This can be something they can add to their resume.”
Once the forestry students have completed their work, facilities staffers will assist by hauling off the debris. But all of this would have been far more difficult to accomplish had the goats not initially reduced the density of the cover. The amount of understory and midstory vegetation they’ve removed has been stunning in scope.
“This project is an excellent example of what is commonly called ‘integrated management.’ Instead of relying on a single method for removing these plants, we are using several – with goats being just the first step,” said Hagan, a Clemson University forest ecologist. “They open it up and then our students will finish the job with targeted chemical and mechanical treatments. This combination of methods will result in much more efficient and effective control of these undesirable plant species.”
The results of all three trials have been favorable. Within the browsing areas, almost every invasive plant species, including kudzu, Chinese privet, silverthorn, English ivy, nandina, liriope, Japanese stiltgrass and Japanese honeysuckle, were significantly reduced and thus easier to manage. Even better, the hardy goats were able to plunge into thorny thickets with little risk of injury.
“My experience with Clemson has been very positive. This was our third year here, and at this point we’ve completed about 20 acres of weed management,” said Searcy, who owns more than 250 goats that he loans out to provide natural brush and weed management throughout the Southeast. “Going into a wildly overgrown area is far more beneficial for goats than being in a pasture. Like deer, goats are browsers. They prefer to eat high… off the ground. The plants they like to eat are extremely nutritious. And staying off the ground adds to the benefit by reducing the amount of parasites they consume.”
Most of Searcy’s goats are tame and even playful. But this relative timidity is by design rather than temperament.
“We typically work with our goats quite a bit, feeding them and petting them so that they are conditioned to being around people and are not as skittish and scared as some goats might be,” Searcy said. “And one thing that we do at Wells Farm that probably is a little different is that we don’t buy goats from other farms. All our goats are home-bred.”
The ongoing project, which has been mostly funded by Clemson University Facilities, is titled “Evaluating Control Strategies for Effective Species Management – Prescribing Grazing with Goats.” Additional costs have been covered by internal and external sources.
“This has been a terrific project on many levels,” said Sawyer, an associate professor in agricultural and environmental sciences. “Not only are we controlling the ‘bad actors’ of the invasive species world, but we’re actually bringing Hunnicutt Creek and other areas into view for many on campus who might have walked past them for years and not even realized they were there. I believe individuals often need to experience something visually or physically before they can begin to care about it enough to become involved.”