Craig Madsen's 270 rented goats make quick work of brush at the Metro bus depot in Bellevue on June 6. "They are just eating machines," said Tammy Dunakin of Vashon Island, who also rents out goats. "They suck down blackberry vines like it was spaghetti. I don't understand it, (but) the thorns don't bother them at all."
Rent-a-goats gain foothold
Critters grow popular in city as cheap, chemical-free way to clear vegetation
GetYerGoat Has the Yard sign just for you! Signs have a place for you to put your contact information, (or you can order ahead of time with your phone number to be printed) Let passer by's know you rent your goats for brush clearing!
By COLIN McDONALD
In 24 hours, the goats reduced a bed of ivy to a mat of bare vines. They riddled the once-imposing blackberry thicket with tunnels.
In less than four days, the invasive plants would be vanquished, allowing sunlight to stream through the vacant lot next to the King County Metro bus depot in Bellevue.
With their four-chambered stomachs and insatiable desire to nibble on anything even resembling a plant, goats have gained credibility as land clearers among Seattle-area government agencies and private developers.
"Getting them to accept it is always the hardest part," said Craig Madsen, an Eastern Washington rancher who's part of the urban trend. His rentable herd of 270 Boer and Spanish goats has never been more in demand.
Skeptics, he's found, quickly become converts. Once the hooves hit the ground, few can question the tenacity of these ruminants to devour unwanted foliage.
"It was unbelievable," said John Iwanczuk, a project manager for Saltaire Construction in Seattle. "We've been in the business for 25 years -- we're skeptical about everything. But not only did it reach our objective, we saved a pile of money and made incredible inroads with the neighborhood."
Bringing goats into the city to do what they do best has its advantages: They're cheaper than manual laborers, chemical-free and popular with parents and children. Even the critters' droppings are in demand.
Last month, Iwanczuk was faced with a steep quarter-acre lot on Dearborn Street covered with impenetrable brush. He figured it would take a crew at least a week to clear the lot, filling eight to10 trucks with waste.
When a real estate broker suggested goats, Iwanczuk agreed to give it a try. His colleagues laughed -- at first.
Four days and 60 goats later, the blackberry vines and Scotch broom were gone, and Iwanczuk had risen to neighborhood hero status. Elementary school groups came to watch and pet the goats as they dozed on the sidewalk. Moms brought freshly baked cookies. Local gardeners lusting for free fertilizer scooped the lot clean of droppings.
Iwanczuk estimates he saved $6,000 to $9,000 on the job.
Madsen charges $450 a day for the goats, a $250 transportation fee and extra for setting up their fencing.
"They are just eating machines," said Tammy Dunakin, who runs Rent-A-Ruminant on Vashon Island and contracted with Iwanczuk. "They suck down blackberry vines like it was spaghetti. I don't understand it, (but) the thorns don't bother them at all."
Metro joined Seattle City Light and Seattle Parks and Recreation this year on a growing list of goat-hiring public agencies. The trend started in the early 1990s in Los Angeles County, where goats were found to be an effective tool for clearing underbrush on fire-prone hillsides. That practice spread to parts of the Sierra Nevada and the Oakland, Calif., hills.
"It's common as sin," said Frank Pinkerton, who recently retired from Langston University in Oakland, where he researched the use of goats for weed and brush control.
Craig Madsen and his border collie Mac stand guard while Madsen's herd of about 270 hungry goats eat their fill of blackberry vines and ivy at the Metro bus depot in Bellevue on June 6. An Eastern Washington rancher, Madsen spends five months a year touring Western Washington in a semi with a 30-foot double-deck trailer full of goats.
In some places, such as Chattanooga, Tenn., and Appalachian trails, the animals are being used to combat invasive species, Pinkerton said.
When it comes to steep slopes covered in blackberry vines, goats are faster and cheaper than human crews or heavy equipment. Goats can't compete with herbicides for speed but can work in wetlands and along stream banks with minimal threat to water quality or salmon habitat. If allowed to return to an area for a couple of years, they can almost entirely remove English ivy, Scotch broom and blackberries, Madsen said.
"Those little buggers really did clear away a good part of the bank," said Suzanne Hartman of City Light, which used goats last year to clear brush from around the North Substation in the Roosevelt neighborhood. "You could finally see the fence."
City Light Superintendent Jorge Carrasco saw goats being used near San Francisco before he came to Seattle and quickly approved the idea when his maintenance staff proposed it. The goats will be returning to the Roosevelt site later this summer to finish the work.
Both Madsen and Dunakin, who started their separate rent-a-goat businesses less than five years ago, are now booked months in advance.
Dunakin leaves her island farm once a month for work in Seattle, while Madsen spends five months a year touring Western Washington in a semi with a 30-foot double-deck trailer. Both say demand is being fueled by the growth of the "green" building industry.
Accompanied by their border collies, the goatherds are with their critters 24 hours a day when on city jobs. They sleep in their trucks. Madsen has a guard dog to protect his goats from coyotes on rural assignments.
"But when I'm in the city, I worry about people," he said.
Last month, 15 goats were shot near Oakland while they were clearing land for fire protection.
So far, Madsen and Dunakin have had no such urban problems. After setting up an electric fence to keep the goats from straying, they have little to do but keep watch over the herd and answer questions posed by curious neighbors.
"I read a lot," Madsen said.
As for the goats, "As long as there is plenty to eat, they're happy."
Bet you didn't know:
# A goat's pupils are rectangular.
# Their average life span is eight to 12 years.
# Worldwide, meat and milk from goats are consumed more than the meat and milk from cows.
# Goats can eat up to 8 pounds of green foliage a day.
Sources: Ohio State University, American Boer Goat Association