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  • Kate Munning

The Weed-Eaters

It’s December and now that the colder weather is setting in, the goats that have called South Branch Preserve home since June have departed until next summer.

Goats, you may ask?

If you haven’t been out to South Branch Preserve, then you may not be familiar with a unique approach that The Land Conservancy of New Jersey has taken for weed control without the use of harmful chemicals.

During a trip to the Preserve, I couldn’t help but notice the distinctive bleating sound that goats make as I parked my car. Located in a fenced-off area next to the parking lot are several goats as well as sheep that are part of the multi-year program called “Project Chew.” Through this program with the Antler Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary, the livestock take residence for a few months at the Preserve and become living weed removal experts by doing what goats and sheep do best. Grazing.

When you find yourself with an overabundance of weeds, there are several things you can do. You can carefully pull them out by hand. Many types of weed break easily, leaving their roots behind to create next year’s plant. Even if you get them out cleanly there are other weeds that take advantage of the disturbed ground and come up there.

A goat mowing them down makes things easier, especially if the weeds are overgrown into shrubs. The Project Chew goats and sheep had their choice of invasive plants, such as mile-a minute weed, oriental bittersweet and morrows honeysuckle. An electric fence protected them from predators and a small hut provided shelter from rain. All they had to do was eat. When I saw them in late summer they were hunkered down, getting up once in a while to gnaw at a weed or stand up against a tree trunk to get at the lower leaves.

According to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, generally 10 goats will clear an acre in about a month. So you can understand why The Land Conservancy is hoping the goats and sheep can clear four acres over the next three years.

The goats induced pastoral thoughts as I watched them. That these thoughts come in one of the fastest “developed” parts of Morris County, NJ, where motels, residences and commercial strips have sprung up like weeds in the past two decades is no small irony.

If you agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson that “a weed is but a plant whose virtues remain undiscovered,” this is a pretty wilderness. Weeds are fighters that have adapted to modern life. But if you want native plants to thrive, the “weeds” are the bad guys and must be destroyed to eliminate the competition for water and light.

However, if you’re a goat, you don’t care either way. You just eat.

This is a contributed post from one of TLC-NJ’s members, Margo D. Beller.

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