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Eco-Friendly Lawn Mowers

Public agencies and homeowners are finding that goats are a great solution to overgrown properties

Picture a landscape covered in dry shrubs, brambles, and tall, brown grass. To firefighters, the scene is a disaster waiting to happen.

Enter the goat. To city dwellers, goats are smile-inducing, an animal with an adorable demeanor and an inquisitiveness to rival puppies. To hobby gardeners who are unvigilant, they can be a nightmare: goats can reduce a garden to little more than stalks in less than a day.

Goat Girlby hello-julie, on Flickr

But their insatiable appetite is also an asset. They’ll eat almost anything, even poison oak, blackberry, and thistles. And because of that, they make the prefect lawnmower. In recent years, a number of companies across the country have started to offer goats herds as a way to keep down grasses and reduce fire risks.

Not only are the animals experts at fire suppression, but they’re an ecologically smart alternative to using herbicides or gas-guzzling lawn mowers.

“People are looking for other ways to handle fire hazard,” says Genevieve Church, the herd manager at City Grazing, a goat rental company in San Francisco.

According to the City Grazing website, goat grazing is an “ecologically sound practice that eliminates the need for toxic herbicides, chemicals, and gas-powered lawnmowers.” The company’s heard is roughly 60 animals strong, and is regularly moved to residents in San Francisco as well as houses in the fire-prone Oakland Hills.

Public institutions including the San Francisco Exploratorium and Google also have turned to goats. Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the primary utility in Northern California, recently announced a project testing goats. Following a wildfire that swept through the Sierra foothills four years ago, the company is kicking off a pilot program to reduce burnable material around its Auburn, CA power plants. Some 874 goats are being contracted, sourced from the local Flying Mule Farm, and will be used to clear roughly 100 acres around electric and hydroelectric facilities.

The project is not unprecedented. Following a 1991 fire, the city of Berkeley chose goats as one strategy to reduce flamable material around the city. In 2011, 600 animals from Goats R Us cleared roughly 100 acres in the hills surrounding Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory during the course of six weeks. The County of Los Angeles Fire Department has some 27 companies listed as “goat contractors.” Even the Ronald Regan Presidential Library in Simi Valley has a ten-year partnership with the local fire department using goats for clearing.

If this seems strange, some fire suppression history helps. Decades-long policies have stifled naturally occurring fires that clear grass and woodlands. Preventing smaller fires allows dry grass and woody debris to build up, which accumulate and act as ladder fuel into tree canopy. So when fires occur, they burn larger, longer, and hotter than otherwise. Goats, it seems, are especially effective at cropping ladder fuels.

“They’re browsers, so they work from what they like most down to what there is most of,” says City Grazing’s herd manager, Church. “With blackberries goats seem to have almost an immunity with the thorns. They love it.”

Goats are the perfect mowing solution for ecologically sensitive areas. Every year, Goats R Us is hired for a project at the San Francisco International Airport as part of an “organic weed abatement program.” Parts of the airport property provide habitat for the endangered San Francisco Garter snake and the threatened California red-legged frog. Herbicide spraying or mechanical mowing won’t work there, but goats can do the job just fine.

Goats as lawnmowers would seem to represent the ideal of using an ecological solution as opposed to an industrial quick-fix. In sensitive areas, goats are far more effective and less harmful on the landscape. Their feces add nutrients to soil, which they till with their hooves while foraging. They are cost-effective, since the work of grazing is also their paycheck. And they make intelligent, adaptive, and easy-to-train co-workers. “They each have an independent personality,” Church says.

So if you have a big mowing job that needs to get done, forget the Roundup and that heavy lawnmower, and instead see if you can get a goat to do the work for you.

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