Last Saturday morning, outside the Oak Bluffs Library, three goats on leashes demonstrated to the large turnout of grown-ups and (mostly) little kids that these long-necked, silky-haired creatures are super-friendly. One in particular, a 4-month-old goat-doll named Hazel, made a dash toward this reporter as if we’d known each other forever. On the other hand, she may have mistaken my notepad for a sandwich.
Because, boy, oh boy, do these critters love to eat!
“He’s like a personal vacuum,” said Tisbury second grader Dillon Fontren about a horned white goat named Billy, who never for a moment stopped crunching grass, twigs, and leaves, even setting his hooves high on his handler’s chest to access tendrils up on trees.
And that’s the whole point of the business called Scapegoats Goatscaping, owned by Joe van Nes and Kristine Patnugot of West Tisbury, both in their late 20s: For anyone who needs land cleared of unwanted shrubs such as bittersweet and poison ivy, and of volunteer tree sprigs such as black locust and Russian olive, selected goats from the Scapegoats herd of 15, at the rate of $20 per day per herbivore, can be dispatched to munch till they drop — which they don’t, apparently.
Mother Nature intended for goats to eat endless field greens: They possess four stomachs, each with its own capacity to digest food and send it along to the next part of the processing. They also, like cows, regurgitate and chew again, so that very little escapes a goat’s ability to break it down and run it through the intestinal tract.
A man with a baby girl on his shoulders asked, “Is there anything goats won’t eat?”
Van Nes explained, “They don’t eat leafy evergreens such as rhododendrons, but other than that, they’re pretty omnivorous, as long as it’s plant-based.”
Van Nes also related the long-term effects of several seasons of goatscaping. “Plants grow back, including poison ivy, but over a few treatments, the goats change the terrain. They trample, leave manure, work in the manure, then trample some more. Eventually they build up a super mulch and also block photosynthesis for such plants as poison ivy, until it finally stops growing in that soil.”
While Van Nes answered questions, he held the leashes for chewing machine Billy and the milder Jane, the latter revealing no particular cute personality quirks. Hazel, meanwhile, was ever alert to Patnugot when she pulled banana slices and papaya chunks out of a plastic bag. It was then that Hazel gently smooched it from her keeper’s palm, much like a puppy dog would have done.
The Scapegoat couple also work the female part of the herd for goat milk. Each day’s yield of anywhere from a quart to a gallon and a half reveals flavors from whatever field had been worked over by that goat the day before. Van Nes recommends the healing effects of this leaves-to-milk equation: “I used to landscape, and I got horrific bouts of poison ivy all over my arms and legs. When I started to drink goat’s milk, which, of course, contains filtered amounts of poison ivy, I stopped having bad effects from it.”
Van Nes and Patnugot routinely offer property owners the day’s output in milk from goats working their garden. “It’s delicious!” maintains Van Nes. “And it’s fun for people to learn what their own yard tastes like!”
Van Nes and his parents, Rosemary and Nick, with three acres of land in West Tisbury, have always harbored an interest in livestock. In 2013, son Joe was offered eight goats for free, provided he had no intention of eating them. He took the goats, and found that one was pregnant, thus raising his initial herd to 10. Now that he has 15 goats, he and his father have built a large pen on the latter’s land.
Meanwhile, back in 2011, Van Nes met Patnugot in a grocery store in Brooklyn. The young woman had grown up in Michigan, and pursued filmmaking and photography in L.A., D.C., and N.Y.C. “I guess I like places with initials for names!” she said cheerfully. Once happily ensconced with Van Nes on the Island, her boyfriend invited her to join him in the goat business this past year. “I take care of all the media work,” she added.
The two of them have quickly made a sustainable business of goat tending, with enough income left over for winter feed and vet bills.
A woman in the crowd asked Patnugot if goats were as friendly and affectionate as dogs. The answer was an emphatic, “Yes! Especially if you raise them to trust you and like you, and if you treat them with respect.”
One look in Hazel’s pale gold eyes, and a time-out with her when she let herself be stroked up and down her long thin neck with an oak twig, made it crystal-clear that these animals are hands-down favorites of the barnyard set.
For more information about Scapegoats Goatscaping, contact Joe and Kristine for a consultation at email@example.com.