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Goats: The new first line of defence against weeds?

Jeff Bassett/The Globe and Mail

A new breed of four-legged, furry gardeners arrived in Kamloops Monday to graze through the city's weed problem. Grass-guzzling goats will save the city about $500 a hectare and may soon replace the inmates who hand pick the problem plants.

"It's another tool in the toolbox for managing noxious weeds," said Kelly Johnston, a city spokesman.

The city brought in about 440 goats in a pilot project exploring this alternative method to eliminating invasive weeds, he said. Rocky Ridge Vegetation Control supplied the hungry crew that started feasting Monday in Kenna Cartwright Park.

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The company has been contracting their goats out for about a dozen years, said owner Conrad Lindblom. The goats work during the four-month grazing season every year, he said. The company mostly operates in northern Alberta and northern B.C.

"It's working really well," he said.

Before the goats arrived, inmates from Kamloops Regional Correctional Centre picked the weeds in the park by hand, said Mr. Johnston, as part of the facility's prisoner work program. The process was lengthy. Prisoners hand pulled the plants, bagged them, hauled the bags out of the park, and then someone still had to bring the bags to the dump.

The goats can do the job faster. They will work two shifts daily, he said, taking an unusual lunchtime break – not for eating, but from the heat. They are expected to devour approximately three hectares a day, he said, completing the trial 33-hectare area in eight to 12 days. It would take the prisoners much longer than 10 days to go through the same amount of land, he said.

Not only are they slower, but the prisoners cost the city more. The animal and human gardeners are paid by completed hectares, said Mr. Johnston, not by the hour.

When participants in the prison work program hand pulled the weeds, the city paid about $800 a hectare, he said. The goats only cost $300. Over 33 hectares in the pilot project, that is more than $16,000 in savings.

The goats are also much more qualified for this job.

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The workplace is hilly and mountainous, said Mr. Johnston. This makes it difficult to use methods like hand pulling, mowing, or spraying herbicides – alternatives to herbicides are preferred under the city's integrated pest-management program.

"The goats just eat the weeds and then take them with them," he said.

The free meal does not harm the goats, said their owner. They can eat a certain amount of toxins from toadflax and other pesky plants. The toxins can not make up more than 20 per cent of their diet, said Mr. Lindblom, but goats are natural self-regulators.

"Goats seem to know what they can tolerate and what they can't," he said. "If it's too much, then they just go on eating something else."

Their digestive system is ideal because it destroys the seeds during digestion, said Mr. Johnston.

Their first day on the job was a success. Next year, Mr. Johnston said he hopes to co-ordinate efforts with other land managers nearby and have the goats cover a larger area.

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"If it goes well, we'll definitely have them back."

The biggest obstacle to their return may be public perception. If taxpayers don't want to see the goats in parks, he said, then the city may opt for another route next summer.

Mr. Johnston said he isn't worried that the goats will fail to eat the weeds, because they come with a strong track record. But, it is always a possibility and, coupled with a poor public welcome, the project could still be scrapped, he said.

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