The Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank has put its herd of about 100 goats back at work “mowing” fields at Waskosim’s Rock Reservation this summer. It is the second full year of a program in which the Island public conservation organization is using goats to clear woody undergrowth in habitats that have historically benefited from grazing.
Waskosim’s Rock encompasses 185 acres of a historic homestead property set between North and Middle Roads in Chilmark and West Tisbury. It is accessed from North Road, and features numerous trails that wind through dense woodland and open meadows.
After a hay-fed winter at the Land Bank’s Wapatequa Woods Reservation, which straddles the line between Oak Bluffs and Tisbury, the goats have taken heartily to the vegetation of the rolling landscape, crisscrossed by stone walls, at Waskosim’s Rock. The herd will be rotated through the property all summer. Corralled inside an electric fence, the four-legged ruminants can be seen munching day in and day out, with frequent breaks to cavort atop the moss-covered stone walls of their temporary habitat.
The Land Bank purchased the goats in 2015. Grazing has replaced mechanical mowing at Waskosim’s, at roughly twice the cost, for reasons both practical and ecologically long-term.
“It’s very difficult to keep a grassland a grassland,” Matthew Dix, Land Bank foreman, said. “It’s very challenging to keep a diverse landscape, especially there. In the 1990s, we cleared [the fields at Waskosim’s Rock]. Most of that acreage was woods and brush. I’ve been mowing it ever since, and if I were to not mow it for a year or two, it’d be hard to tell if it was still a grassland.”
Woody plants like sumac and scrub oak, which now dominate the landscape, are eradicated by constant grazing, while native grasses like little bluestem can survive the process, giving rise to a more diverse ecosystem.
Grazing also allows for more constant, nuanced maintenance. Where a lawnmower would cut everything down to a uniform height once or twice in a season and leave behind a chopped-up layer of thatch, goats, although less tidy, are less uniform.
Their long-term grazing leaves patches of exposed soil where seeds can land; they convert thatch and woody plants to animal waste that soil bacteria can thrive on, creating conditions that benefit grasses instead of trees; and they can maneuver around the uneven terrain at Waskosim’s more easily than a lawnmower. Goats also don’t carry the threat that lawnmowers do of harming vulnerable box turtles and nesting birds.
They’re also not very picky, Mr. Dix said, and even less so when they’re fenced in. “If you let your kids run around in Cronig’s, they’re just going to run around and eat what they want to eat,” he said. But “if you locked them in the health food aisle, eventually they’d start to eat it.”
The hope is that after three to five years of this grazing treatment, the landscape will have been altered more permanently toward a diverse grassland like that which might have been seen in the 1800s, when the Island was heavily grazed by sheep.
This is in line with broader ideas about restoring the historical landscapes of New England, propagated by ecologists who include David R. Foster of the Harvard Forest in Petersham. According to one of Mr. Foster’s papers, in 1775 Martha’s Vineyard was home to around 20,000 sheep, and the amount of tilled, hay, or pasture land on Cape Cod and the Islands was upwards of 30 percent. Today, the Vineyard has less than a 10th that number of sheep, and the percentage of traditional agricultural land cover on the Cape and Islands is well under 5 percent.
For now, the hundred-odd Land Bank goats will chew their way through 13 acres at Waskosim’s — and if they’re fast enough, eat it all again two more times before the season is over. Come October, Mr. Dix said, the goats will be “chasing grass” at other properties around the Island, getting their last few bites of fresh vegetation before holing up at Wapatequa for another winter.
After analyzing the long-term results from Waskosim’s, the Land Bank will probably deploy the goats to Sepiessa Point in West Tisbury, where a savannah grassland needs maintenance.
On the difference between mowing and grazing, Mr. Dix says, it’s “apples and oranges.”
For more information about the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank and its properties, visit mvlandbank.com, or call 508-627-7141.