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Goats Grazing the Graveyard: A Washington ‘First’

Neal Peirce / Aug 09 2013

For Release Sunday, August 12, 2013
© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceWASHINGTON – It’s likely the first land clearing project of its kind that’s occurred in the Nation’s Capital – a city currently afflicted by extreme partisan rhetoric and high congressional roadblocks.

But forget politics for a moment and consider activity underway at the famed Congressional Cemetery. It’s a model of efficient, round-the-clock work – animal-driven – in the national interest.

As you read these lines, a herd of some 100 goats is actively munching away, consuming an extraordinarily thick tangle of vines, poison ivy and other invasive plant species that have infested a 2-acre perimeter area of the famed burial ground.

Eco Goats
Ecologically sensitive goats, ready for a hard day’s work weed-eating in Washington. Photo Credit: Eco-Goats.

The goats began applying their voracious appetites at the cemetery on Wednesday (Aug. 7). They’re expected to finish their work by Aug. 12 or soon after. In the meantime the public has been invited to visit the site and see the animals at work. And visitors are flooding in.

Just to watch goats? Aren’t these creatures considered symbols of stubbornness? Maybe so. But raise and handle them well, then herd them into an area with succulent leaves inviting their attention, and they’re docile, hard-working and uncomplaining, says Brian Knox, founder and leader of the Maryland-based firm “Eco-Goats” that supplied the goats for the Congressional Cemetery project.

Agile and light on their feet, goats are gentler than machinery when working on sensitive or historical sites. They have special enzymes in their guts that allow them to eat plants poisonous to other animals. They’re natural climbers, undaunted by thick vines, perching their front hooves on tree trunks to reach the broad-leafed material they love to munch on.

Goats’ powerful triangular mouths destroy the seeds of invasive plants they consume – which means their droppings (unlike those of birds) fertilize the soil but don’t re-seed it. That creates ecological space for the return and growth of native grasses and plants.

Plus, goats obviate the use of harsh herbicides – a key reason, Lauren Malloy of the Congressional Cemetery staff explains, not just to put the “adorable” goats to work on the problem site but to prevent harmful runoff into the nearby Anacostia River.

The goats, of course, aren’t set free to graze the cemetery; a temporarily installed electrified fence confines them to the overgrown area on the cemetery’s perimeter.

That means there’s no danger to the cemetery’s 5,000 grave sites, including the headstones of such notables as Vice President (and signer of the Declaration of Independence) Elbridge Gerry, composer John Philip Sousa, Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Also interred at the cemetery are numerous members of Congress, including U.S. Reps. Edith Norse Rogers (author of the GI Bill) and Tom Lantos (House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman and the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress).

The 8-foot-high fence around the goats’ work area also means, Knox explains, that the animals – all seasoned professionals of other clean-up jobs – aren’t disturbed by such urban environmental perils as “teenagers and dogs.”

Knox, who runs a natural resources firm, got into goat-raising almost accidentally – on a friend’s suggestion, to sell the meat – five years ago. But as soon as he started giving the animals names, meat selling lost its allure. He undertook research that showed goats were already being widely used in Western states for preventing brush fires and suppressing kudzu infestation, with herds commissioned by federal agencies, corporate campuses of Google and Yahoo and cities, including Seattle. A decade-old goat enterprise named “Healing Hooves” operates out of Edwall, Wash, near Spokane.

Today goat farming is expanding in the East and Midwest, with herds at work on grown-over, hard-to-clear rural properties plus in such cities as Chicago, New York’s Staten Island and Philadelphia.

Wherever locations are accessible, curious crowds – as at the Congressional Cemetery – assemble to watch the appealing, busy animals.

Knox sounds downright fatherly as he notes: “We just had a number of kids. And some of our grazers are out on maternity leave right now.”

One’s left wondering: Can a parallel “family feeling” ever return to American politics?

Likely not soon. The very phrase “Eco-Goats” may appeal to liberals and Democrats who see a new “Earth Day-like” solution in goats replacing herbicides and massive ground-clearing. Conversely, just using a word reminiscent of “ecology” is unlikely to win favor with Republican officeholders who viscerally favor corporate-created, “free enterprise” answers.

But let any politico, left or right or middle, go see the goats at work – and then not smile.


Neal Peirce’s e-mail is npeirce@citistates.com.

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp., WPPermissions@parsintl.com, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375, wpwgsales@washpost.com. (c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

3 Comments

  1. Vincent Verweij
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Hey guys, just for accuracy of reporting, NPS is not looking to remove poison ivy, believe it or not. Poison ivy is a native plant with excellent wildlife benefit. What they’re looking to remove are non-native invasive vines and plants, that are choking out native vegetation. They’re removing things like English ivy, kudzu, and porcelainberry.

  2. Mary DeWolf
    Posted August 9, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Public Service Co. of N.H. not long ago used flocks of sheep to clear undr power lines.

    The reason our New Hampshire cemeteries were fenced was to keep the sheep in; they were used, because they don’t leap up high the way goats do and don’t eat flowers. Goats consume everything.

    I never heard of a stubborn goat, but “stubborn as a mule” is a common phrase!

    My foal (baby horse) nibbled aroind tombstones, when I rode his mother through the cemetery.

    My grandparents in the 1870′s-1900′s in Chicago had 8 children, who with others kept cemeteries clear.
    I don’t know when parks were developed.

    Can anyone explain why in the
    Bible the sheep and goats are separated?! Sheep do seem passive, whereas goats are agile and active.

    Why do we call some folks “old goats” and others “black sheep” ?

  3. Jerry Kolasinski
    Posted August 12, 2013 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    Portland Oregon has also used goats to clean up some area infestations of English Ivy, considered an invasive plant, in the Washington Park forest. The animals do good work and are quite selective, unlike chemicals.