Hungry goats and hard-working humans join to turn a dangerous jungle into a peaceful forest
CLEMSON — An army of thorny, poisonous plants that once occupied two prime acres of Clemson University real estate has been swept from its stronghold by a coalition of goats and humans that slowly but surely pounded the gnarled invaders into submission.
And to the victor goes the spoils. A once-impenetrable stretch of forest has been made beautiful again, much to the delight of the faculty, students and tailgaters who frequent its borders.
For the third straight year, a herd of hungry goats came to Clemson to devour dense tangles of invasive plants that have plagued portions of the campus for decades. This year, 40 goats arrived on May 18 to munch on kudzu and a slew of other non-native species. By the time the ravenous ruminants left in late June, the enemy that had long inhabited about two acres of forested area on Kappa Street between Lee Hall and the Strom Thurmond Institute had been softened up for the next wave of attack.
To finish what the goats had started, Clemson University undergraduate students Jay Deason and Griff Dorn took over the reins of the well-planned campaign, toiling in brutal summer heat from the start of July until mid-August. The end result? A splendorous hardwood forest was unveiled.
“Before the goats, it was so thick you couldn’t see anything. But the goats pretty much cleared it out from the chest down,” said Deason, a 45-year-old student in the forestry and environmental conservation department who was a longtime paramedic before choosing to change careers and join the Clemson program. “So Griff and I were able to navigate the woods a little better and see what it was we were dealing with rather than just having to dive in blindly.”
Wearing double-stitched long pants, long-sleeved shirts and heavy gloves to protect themselves from thorns, poisons and insects, Deason and Dorn began their assault armed only with a pair of loppers. But they quickly realized they would need more powerful weapons. So they ended up waging most of their six-week battle with a bladed weed-whacker and a rugged utility vehicle. While one man sliced and diced vines, bushes and even small trees, the other bundled up the foliage, tied it together with a rope and then used the utility vehicle to drag the heavy piles into open areas. In the process, vines that had wound their way to the top of 60-foot trees were stripped off the bark like aging wallpaper.
“We made piles of debris that were 15 feet high, 20 feet wide and hundreds of feet long,” said Dorn, 25, a forestry and environmental conservation student who spent three years in the military before joining Clemson. “When facilities personnel came to haul it away, it would take them an entire day to get it all. The goats gave us the openings we needed, but there was still a massive amount of vegetation — especially in the mid-story — that was out of the goats’ reach.”
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 Jeremy Pike, Cal Sawyer and Donald Hagan, along with campus landscape director Tommy Fallaw, have played leading roles in the ongoing trials.
“When we first envisioned this project, we weren’t certain what would happen or how well it might work,” said Pike, an associate scientist in the forestry and environmental conservation department who is nearing the completion of his Ph. D. “But we viewed it as an opportunity to try something a little different. And what we’ve found over the past three years is that the goats make these dense and often dangerous areas safer and more accessible for workers to enter and finish the job.”
Fallaw said that the prescribed goat-grazing project, which has been funded mostly by Clemson University Facilities, has met and, in some cases, exceeded expectations.
“We now have some great new views of the Suber Dam from the driveway that leads up to the Lee III building from Perimeter Road,” Fallaw said. “Some really nice trees that were once covered and surrounded by vines and other invasive plant material are now visible and can finally be enjoyed. The three-step process of goats opening up the area, followed by human workers cutting the invasive plants to ground level and finally applying small amounts of herbicide to the stumps has turned out to be an extremely effective approach and a great enhancement to our landscape.”
The ongoing project is titled “Evaluating Control Strategies for Effective Species Management – Prescribed Grazing with Goats.” The results of all three trials thus far 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.
“Are they the best financial option for this kind of job? That remains debatable and it’s something we’re continuing to analyze,” Pike said. “But the goats have become very popular on and off campus. So you could say that they’ve performed a dual function. They eat invasive plants with great gusto. But they’ve also raised awareness at our university and in our community of the hazards and annoyances these invasive plants present to public properties and private landowners.”
Now that their long labors are over, Deason and Dorn are predictably relieved. But they are also proud of their accomplishments.
“It wasn’t always fun while we were doing it, but afterward it was rewarding to see the difference we had made,” said Deason, who was born in Charleston. “It was like knocking down a wall and finding something beautiful behind it.”
“When it’s 98 degrees in the middle of the summer, work like this isn’t much fun,” added Dorn, who was born in Charlotte but raised in Greenwood, South Carolina. “By the end of each day, we were smoked. But when all was said and done, it was well worth it.”