Goats and sheep help Martha’s Vineyard land organizations with weeds

Goats and sheep are being used to control fields at Waskosim's Rock in Chilmark. — Photo courtesy Land Bank

Three goats have a new job this summer. They are part of a Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation (SMF) land management plan for the Cedar Tree Neck sanctuary in West Tisbury.

In June, Rebecca Gilbert and her husband, Randy Ben David, owners of Native Earth Teaching Farm in Chilmark, hired out three billy goats to graze on the remote property that juts into Vineyard Sound. Kristen Fauteux, SMF director of stewardship, put the plan in place as part of her graduate research project at Antioch University New England. Ms. Fauteux said the goal of the project is to reduce bittersweet, and see if goats make sense as a land management alternative.

SMF rents the goats from Ms. Gilbert at a discounted rate of about $100 a month. Ms. Fauteux wants to see what the goats eat, when, where, and how much. The results of the project will include an analysis of cost-effectiveness, and the efficiency of the animals for managing a certain amount of acres per day.

Ms. Fauteux and Ms. Gilbert have discussed using animals for land management for a couple of years. When the timing was right, Ms. Fauteux said, the goats were on the move.

“It’s going really well,” Ms. Fauteux said about the project. “But I think we need more goats.”

The goats eat lots of bittersweet, the target species for the project, but the goats may also eat other native plants like poison ivy. Ms. Fauteux said the experiment is taking place on about four acres of land at Cedar Tree Neck, but she doubts the goats will eat nearly that much.

The land used to be all grass and open views, Ms. Fauteux said. She said using animals to manage the land made sense.

“It would’ve been difficult or nearly impossible to get a tractor there,” she said. “It’s isolated, connected by beach on either side.”

Doing what they do

Ms. Gilbert, who has used animals for land management for more than 20 years, said goats and pigs love to eat. They even enjoy munching on poison ivy.

This is the first time Ms. Gilbert has participated in an academic research project, but she isn’t unfamiliar with the topic of land management and animals.

“We have a lot of anecdotal evidence, like one year we put pigs here and they dug up 40 trees,” she said. “We understand what they do but to translate to people who are not farmers, it helps to have statistics to back them up.”

She can’t tell exactly what the goats will eat and the amount of acres they will graze in how many weeks, but she and Mr. Ben David know from experience that the animals provide effective land management.

“They could take longer than a machine, but in another way, it’s less work, because for the animals, it’s what they want to do,” she said. “It really comes naturally to them, and you don’t really have to train them.”

Compared to other forms of land management, like tractors or prescribed burns, animals simply can’t be “turned off.”

“Tractors you can put away in the winter, but you still have to keep feeding the animals,” she said.

Picky eaters

SMF isn’t the only conservation organization on the Island that has turned to animals for land management.

The FARM Institute and the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank teamed up earlier this year to bring goats and sheep to Waskosim’s Rock, a Land Bank property in Chilmark.

Land Bank ecologist Julie Russell is using the animals to manage a piece of land that provides habitat for the Eastern box turtle, listed as a species of special concern. She said there are about eight box turtles at Waskosim’s Rock, and it is not uncommon to spot one on the trail.

The box turtles live to be around 70 to 100 years old, and can stay within a small area year to year, or stray farther distances. Typically, male box turtles stay in a 12-acre area, and females stay in about a six-acre area, she said. The turtles tend to breed in the summer, and live the rest of the year in the woods.

“Waskosim’s Rock is classic, it has everything they need from well-drained soils, edges of a pond, to open area,” she added.

The area is mowed back in the summer, but the process is tedious in order not to harm the box turtles.

“We have to cut with a weed-whacker to make sure it is low enough so when someone is walking in front of the tractor they can see the box turtle and move it out of the way,” she said. “You don’t want to run them over with the blade or tire. Even if the blade is set higher, it doesn’t mean you can’t run it over with the tire.”

The terrain includes a noticeable amount of oak sprouts and other woody shrubs, along with bittersweet and honey suckle. The project will hopefully reduce the woody vegetation, she said.

Matthew Dix, Land Bank foreman and owner of North Tabor Farm, came up with the idea to manage the land using animals.

“We thought, how can we do this without having our entire staff maintaining the goats,” Ms. Russell said. “So we got a herder, talked to the Farm Institute, and put out a bid proposal.”

About seven to nine goats were brought to the Farm Institute earlier this year and a two-year contract for land management was signed.

Several weeks after the goats were brought to Waskosim’s Rock, Ms. Russell said they added about seven to nine sheep to the group to help eat more of the vegetation.

Ms. Russell said she is unsure how cost-effective using animals will be to manage the land, but she expects to know in the next year or so.

The sheep and goats will only be used during the summer season, and will remain at the Farm Institute during parts of the fall, winter, and potentially, some of spring.

“For being not picky eaters, they’re picky,” she said with a laugh.

Ms. Russell discovered goats tend to eat more when the sun goes down. But sheep don’t seem to mind.

“They’re [sheep] out eating the good stuff, the herbaceous plants, some of the more tender plants that are easier to digest and taste better. Then they go to the woody stuff,” she said. “The goats are left with leftovers, which is woody stuff, and they are more likely to eat it.”