Herds of goats are used to rid the earth of grasses and shrubs that could be a fire hazard from the US to the Mediterranean – but should this practice be encouraged?
Back in 2007, some members of an 80-strong wild goat herd inhabiting Exmoor National Park 'invaded' the small English village of Lynton after learning how to negotiate a £40,000 cattle grid installed to keep them out.
‘Tip-toeing’ over the grid, invading gardens, allotments and the local cemetery, these four-legged interlopers were judged to have created havoc and devastation and were therefore considered by some of the local residents as ‘destructive and dangerous pests’. They were controversially culled.
More recently, some wild Great Orme Kashmiri goats, descendants of Queen Victoria’s royal herd, took advantage of the coronavirus lockdown and deserted streets in the Welsh seaside town of Llandudno.
Running through the main street, climbing walls, invading gardens and eating whatever they fancied, these agile invaders have brought an element of comic relief to a human population hunkering down inside.
Rather than seen as ‘destructive and dangerous pests’, however, the residents in Llandudno are ‘proud’ of their new silken-haired inhabitants and see them as a welcome source of ‘free entertainment’.
Being inquisitive, intelligent, social, as well as the most adaptable and geographically widespread livestock species, goats have long played an important role in and for our society.
Humans began domesticating goats (Capra hircus) in the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. The act encouraged a huge lifestyle change. The people switched from being hunter-gathers to being tillers of the soil and herders of animals.
When the first farmers moved into Europe about 7,500 years ago, goats came with them, helping to revolutionise society. This was one of the most fundamental changes in our history and goats were there to lend four helping feet.
Beside providing us with entertainment, for thousands of years goats – one of our first domesticates – have been a source of milk, cheese and meat for food.
Their skin and hair has been used for clothing, water carriers and parchment – the most common material used for writing in Europe until the invention of the printing press.
They have also served as images for religion, mythology and folklore.
For decades, on the west coast of the US, goats have been earning their keep as actors of preservation, restoration and reparation. Goat herds are now one of the go-to vegetation management tools for proactively fighting fires in the twenty-first century.
In California, Oakland and Berkeley residents still remember the bleak and blackened moonscapes of the 1991 sweeping fires which jumped an eight-lane freeway, killed 25 people, injured more than 150 people, destroyed nearly 3,500 homes, consumed over 1,500 acres and cost $2.2 billion in damages.
Since then many private residents and large outfits such as the East Bay Regional Park Fire Department, San Francisco International Airport, the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, the Contra Costa Water District, Google and UC Berkeley have called in the local fire prevention squad: an economic, environmentally friendly, weed and scrub management team of sure-footed goats, shepherds and alert border collies.
Even the City of Oakland Fire Department uses goat-grazing to provide firebreaks in order to reduce the speed with which a fire ‘can travel horizontally and threaten nearby structures and private property’.
Fire-prevention goat herds grazing along the hillsides, eating unwanted grasses and weeds, have proven to be more cost efficient, less toxic and less polluting than other fire-fighting solutions such as pesticides and mechanical equipment.
With their exceptional agility and unique mouth architecture – prehensile upper lips and tongues – they are able to graze, browse and clear areas considered impossible to reach by human or mechanical hands and other domestic livestock.
A single 100-pound goat can consume about 12 pounds of green brush in a day. A 170-strong herd can clear out 2,000 pounds of brush in one day. It has been estimated that goats eat their way through 40 to 50 acres each summer just at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, an arm of the US Department of Energy.
At the same time, the Bay Area residents are treated to bucolic scenes of antic-prone shaggy angoras, squat pygmies, tiny-eared la manchas, stringy alpines, and a myriad number of goat combinations grazing through overgrown land, climbing trees, and butting one another with only an occasional bleat to disturb, or enhance, the environment.
The positives of this form of fire-prevention are clear. Goat-grazing as a form of control to create fuel breaks and prevent deadly fires is not unique to the Bay Area or even the state of California.
Proactive efforts to reduce the threat and devastating effects of wildfires through goat-grazing are being used across the States and around the globe, especially in the Mediterranean region. Nevertheless, there are also potential negatives. Overgrazing by feral goats can lead to ecosystem degradation and loss of biodiversity.
These agile, woolly creatures – often thought of as mobile garbage cans or more accurately, mixed-feeding opportunists – have been known to reduce or eliminate entire populations of native plants and facilitate soil erosion, leading to both the elimination of topsoil and the establishment of invasive plants.
Dan Gluesenkamp, the executive director of the California Native Plant Society and founder of the California Invasive Plant Council, believes that "goats can do very significant harm to the natural vegetation. They can be useful for clearing biomass to reduce fire risk for a single season, but that is at the expense of natural biodiversity and higher fire risk in future years."
Feral goats are particularly devastating to island ecosystems. Introduced goats were directly responsible for the disappearance of native plants from Santa Catalina, San Clemente, Guadalupe and St Helena Island.
In Hawaii, browsing and trampling feral goats have degraded habitats, increased erosion, promoted the invasion of alien plants and threatened endangered indigenous plant species.
Elon Gilbert, an agricultural economist, asserts that goats can create havoc and devastation if they are not properly controlled.
He has seen the "great damage they cause in Hawaii where domestic animals became feral and have seriously upset fragile ecosystems in the highland areas. Fences and hunting have managed to exclude goats from some areas such as Maui's Haileakula crater, but this is an expensive solution".
And, it is not just islands that are at risk. The list of places around the world damaged by goat overgrazing grows longer and longer each year.
For decades these free-ranging hardy ruminants have ruined crops, destroyed natural vegetation and sometimes helped undermine economic progress in The Gambia, Senegal, Nigeria, Ethiopia, China, Mongolia, Australia, Greece, Portugal, Mexico and Brazil to name just a few places.
David Pimental, emeritus professor of insect ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University, who used to keep goats and has a "soft spot" for them, also issues a few words of caution: "goats can compete with some native animal species for food, water, and shelter and may be pests, if not managed carefully."
There is no doubt that if employed improperly, goats can consume the bark of some tree species, effectively killing the trees by girdling. They can also damage ecosystems and harm vulnerable plants and animals.
Furthermore, they can destroy more varieties of vegetation than cattle or sheep under conditions of mismanagement that cause severe range deterioration. However, it should be noted that the operative words here are employed improperly and mismanagement.
It would appear that it is often, perhaps even mostly, the improper or even absent containment and control and mismanagement of goats, rather than their mere presence, that results in environmental devastation.
Just as overgrazing can create its own list of problems and is clearly an environmental problem, ungrazed and undergrazed lands can be invaded by fire-risk woody species, which could result in devastating wildfires. Therefore, a balance needs to be found.
Because of the long list of potential negatives, before attempting any goat-clearance project, native plant cycles, ground-nesting birds’ reproductive patterns, and endangered habitats need to be thoroughly researched and taken into consideration.
Goat teams need to work with land managers to achieve an appropriate level of vegetation removal that will reduce fire damage without causing erosion or biodiversity loss.
Taking into account what is known about goat-created devastation, the goats need containment and close supervision in order to mitigate ecological impacts.
Team owners need to safeguard protected plants and areas with portable fences. When securely contained by electric solar-powered fences and supervised by knowledgeable shepherds and hard-working border collies, sure-footed goats could be an environmental asset.
Today, with forest fires running out of control, it might be time to seriously look into more research on, and then perhaps greater investment in, professionally controlled and contained goat-power to prevent the loss of life and property.
And in the future who knows? Perhaps these fire-prevention goat herds might – just might – re-create the ancient mythological image of Amalthea, sometimes said to be Zeus’s she-goat wet nurse on Mount Ida, a symbol of protection and preserver of abundance and plenty – as long as they are properly managed, contained and controlled.
Dawn Starin is an anthropologist. Her articles have appeared in both peer-reviewed journals and in popular publications as varied as Al Jazeera, the Ecologist, The Humanist, New Internationalist, New Statesman, The New York Times, Philosophy Now, and Scientific American amongst others.
This article was first published in Geographical.