Public Works: Goats to the Rescue in the War on Weeds
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Public Works: Goats to the Rescue in the War on Weeds

A new study suggests goats may be the perfect weapon in the fight against an invasive plant species that's taking over Toronto's wetlands.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

There are plenty of people (ourselves included) who would take any excuse to own a goat. Sadly, the Toronto Municipal Code prohibits keeping billies, nannies, or kids at home—but there is reason to believe goats could become an integral part of the City’s parks department.

A global team of university researchers recently published a paper on the potential of livestock—particularly goats—to help control phragmites. The invasive species of marsh reed has been overtaking wetlands in Europe and North America, but constant mowing and use of chemical herbicides have proven costly, inefficient, and, in the case of the herbicides, harmful to the environment.

In research trials that involved placing goats in phragmites-infested enclosures for three periods of two to four weeks, density and height of the dreaded reeds were reduced by about 50 and 60 per cent, respectively, and native plant populations were able to regain a foothold.

And get this: each enclosure was occupied by two goats because, the researchers explained, goats are social animals whose grazing habits might have been thrown off without a buddy around. How can you not love these guys?

In addition to conjuring adorable images of full-bellied goats dozing in pairs after a hearty lunch of invasive plants, this goat-as-strimmer strategy could be useful to Toronto. On August 28, the Toronto Star reported that phragmites are choking out native plant species at Tommy Thompson Park and all around the shores of Lake Ontario, destroying vital bird habitats.

Using goats as weed-whackers is not a new idea. Back in 2012, a wetland rejuvenation project in New York City rented a squad of 20 goats to mow down grassy fields and thin out the phragmites population before herbicide was used. Around the same time, a golf course near Craighurst, Ontario, received media attention for using a pair of goats to rid its fairways of weeds. In fact, as the study points out, people have used grazing animals to keep unwanted weeds at bay for 6,000 years.

Landscaping with goats cuts down on the carbon footprint produced by gas lawn mowers and maintenance equipment, but grazing goats are not entirely eco-friendly. Farm animals’ manure is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, which, when it washes into ponds or lakes, can cause excessive algae growth. Excessive algae uses up oxygen in the water, damaging the ecosystem for fish. It’s already a major problem for Canadian waterways.

This idea could be a winner if the City managed to keep goat waste under control. It would be a messy job, but tack on feeding, petting, and cooing duties, and we’d happily volunteer for it.