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A fun way to manage wild vegetation

In 1991, the Oakland Hills went up in flames. Shortly thereafter, the East Bay Regional Park District instituted a brilliant vegetation management program.

Small herds of goats, restricted by portable fencing, are set out to forage patches of woodland brush. The goats munch up all sorts of wild plants — blackberries, poison oak, nettles, thistles, etc. Within a matter of days, the selected spot is cleared of potential fire hazards. Once finished, the fencing is rolled up; the goats are ushered into a trailer, and the whole operation moves on to another section of the park.

A big fan of Oakland’s goats, I’ve been proposing that someone create a similar program in Ashland since I moved to the area. So, the other day, I was delighted when it was reported that the Medford city council had just approved a goat-rental ordinance. At the same time, I was disappointed that Medford had beaten Ashland to the punch.

Had Ashland’s city council ever considered the idea and nixed it? Were there stringent zoning restrictions? I spoke to several city departments before answers emerged.

The confusion begins with jurisdictional issues. Properties with an Ashland address might be located within the official city limits (and therefore subject to city regulations), or within the greater Urban Growth Boundary, or outside official city boundaries altogether. To complicate matters, the city of Ashland actually owns and cares for land that is not within city boundaries.

Ashland residents and businesses are legally required to keep vegetation on their property under control. The Ashland Parks and Recreation Department maintains much of our urban landscape. Our watershed is managed by the Ashland Fire Department, which also negotiates with some of the privately owned properties outside the city limits.

So, what does this mean for goats?

Within city boundaries, zoning regulations limit the types of small livestock that Ashland residents can keep on their property. Homeowners with sufficient land are permitted to keep two adult miniature (not full-sized) goats. Though the city has further restrictions regarding micro-livestock, a resident could easily own a pair of miniature goats which could then be rotated to forage over several neighbors’ properties — presuming these properties contain the right types of vegetation.

A recent report implied that the rent-a-goat business would be useful for lawn care. Not so. As helpful as goats can be at removing unwanted leafy plants, they are neither useful in managing open grasslands or woody, forested areas. Not to mention lawns.

Typically, goats do not eat much grass. “They are “browsers” and not “grazers,” pointed out Ashland Fire Department’s Division Chief of Forestry, Chris Chambers. “Grazers” (horses, cows, and sheep) are all more effective at grassland management. (Ashland does host a business, Land Manatee, that rotates small herds of cows and horses around rural ranch properties.)

None of the above-mentioned animals are appropriate for maintaining small urban gardens.

Goats will essentially consume any leafy plant within reach. Before setting them out to forage, the types of vegetation in that area need to be carefully considered. Strong and secure fencing has to be installed to keep goats contained, as well as away from any desired flowers and bushes.

“They are great escape artists,” Chambers cautioned.

Chambers pointed out that because goats do not distinguish between wanted and unwanted vegetation, they can foil efforts to restore native plants. If placed in an area where plants already have reached maturation, goats ingest the seeds and collect burrs on their legs. When shifted to another foraging area, they can actually spread invasive species through their droppings.

On the other hand, with well-calculated forethought, goats can be effectively used to permanently remove problematic shrubs. A friend, who has much experience raising goats, explained that by cutting back all the canes from a blackberry patch, then allowing goats to eat new shoots down to the roots, this will actually kill the plant.

While Chambers felt that goats would not be appropriate for vegetation management in some sections of Ashland’s watershed, he could think of several areas where using goats to remove brush might be fully appropriate. Parks and recreation’s Michael Black, who had not previously considered the issue, was also open to the possibility of developing a goat management program.

Readers, stay tuned for more on this topic.

In the meantime, Ashlanders can check zoning regulations to see if raising miniature goats might be a viable choice for them. (ashland.municipal.codes/LandUse/

A couple of caveats: Chris warned that goats tend to attract mountain lions, so protective dogs are necessary companions. My goat-loving friend cautioned that they require a secure shelter that both protects animals from winter cold and summer sun. Goats also need some type of structure to climb on — to keep them amused.

Courtesy photoMedford recently passed an ordinance allowing homeowners to rent goats to help clear their land. Ashland should do the same.