Clearing over 1,000 acres of invasive kudzu, privet hedge and honeysuckle is an overwhelming, yet tremendously tasty task for the workers at Goat Busters.
A Virginia-based company, Goat Busters, rents goat herds to landowners who need to clear vegetation overgrowth. The group’s largest ongoing project is clearing 1,500 acres at Red Mountain Park in Birmingham, which was established in 2007.
“We mapped out an amazing infestation of invasive plants, and it looked like almost all our development money was going to go toward removal,” said David Dionne, park executive director. “We tried chemicals, steam and mowing. Then we discovered goat browsing. We brought the goats out for a test last year, and 50 goats gobbled up two acres in 10 days. It’s saving us thousands of dollars in removal costs.”
A herd of 150 goats started calling Red Mountain Park home on Oct. 16. The hungry hooved animals already have helped transform more than 100 acres from an impassable, viney, overgrown forest to a well-manicured landscape fit for hiking and biking trails.
Red Mountain plays an important role in Birmingham’s industrial history. The first commercial iron ore mine opened on the mountain in 1863. It was home to mines, railroads, factories and towns, which produced goods and equipment that helped the U.S. military win World War I and II. The last mine closed in 1962, and the land lay fallow for almost 50 years.
The goats clear land without destroying or covering historical artifacts, including buildings and old home foundations, which helps Dionne continue developing the area.
“To really get a good design, I have to see the terrain and where historic structures are,” Dionne said. “Goats reveal all of that and are crucial to our success.”
Jace Goodling of Afton, Virginia owns Goat Busters. He’s a custom homebuilder and has raised Kiko breed goats for more than 20 years. Goodling and his goats ventured into land clearing seven years ago. His is one of the few goat-browsing companies in the Southeast.
“It’s probably the oldest historical weed eating method there is,” Goodling said. “Goats eat plant matter and turn it into fertilizer in 24 hours. They’re lightweight and cloven-hoofed, so they’re working the soil; not compacting it. Everything is positive in terms of land stewardship.”
Goodling plans to take on more Alabama clients after he adds 120-150 kids to the herd this spring.
“They’ll be born on this job at Red Mountain, so they’ll get used to moving from one spot to another, the electric fence and the guard dogs,” he said.
For individual landowners interested in using Goat Busters, Goodling visits the area and determines labor needed to install an electric net fence. Once an agreement is reached, his crew sets up the fence and releases goats and guard dogs. Everything is removed once the land is cleared.
Goodling admits goats clear land efficiently, but without continued land management, weeds and invasive species will return.
Red Mountain Park staff understand this and have developed a system to restore native plants to the area.
“We use the goats as a tool – not a single solution to invasive plants,” said Ian Hazelhoff, park Natural Resource Specialist.
After the goats browse and historical pieces are collected, they bring in mulchers to grind remaining biomass, which is distributed back on the land. Then, targeted herbicides are used on invasive plant stumps, and the area is overseeded with native plants.
The method is still experimental, but Hazelhoff hopes this land management process can be adopted across the Southeast.
“We worked hard on creating a goat browsing system that could work on 10 acres or 1,000,” Hazelhoff said. “These goats will be in the park as long as it takes, but they’ll be in Birmingham much longer. We want to teach others to care for land and bring value back to it.”
Portions of Red Mountain Park are already open to the public, including 14 miles of trails, two overlooks, three tree houses, dog parks and an adventure park with zip lines. Visitors can also see the goats at work.
While the 30-year timeline for full park development may seem daunting, the team of Hazelhoff, Goodling and Dionne is enthusiastic about the future for Goat Busters, Red Mountain Park and the city of Birmingham.
“This park will have an impact on the entire county, from Bessemer to Homewood and Hoover and all the surrounding areas,” Dionne said. “I can guarantee you this is going to be a huge success.”
For more on Goat Busters call (434) 531-6166 or visit VAGoatBusters.com. For more information on Red Mountain Park, visit RedMountainPark.org.