What’s a goat good for? Quite a bit, it turns out.
Skinny creatures and a bit mangy looking, they can eat their way through a boatload of brush on slopes that would challenge the finest of hikers.
They’ll even eat poison oak!
Goats and sheep are being used more frequently as an alternative means of altering fire behavior by reducing the fuels available for burning in areas where other forms of fuel reduction aren’t practical.
Removing Fuel in an Urban Setting
The question — in an urban interface like that along the Santa Barbara Riviera or the Eucalyptus Hill area — is a big one: How do you remove enough of the lightweight brush and flashy grasses in the hillside communities on the edge of the wildland interface when the homes are set relatively close together?
One answer is through the use of goats and sheep to mow their way through the fuels that ignite easily: non-native grasses, weedy species and dead or dying brush.
Increasing Use of the Herbivores
For the past several years, both have been used extensively in local open space areas like Parma and Elings parks and in the neighborhoods surrounding the Mission Canyon community and along the Gaviota Coast.
Elings Park has used Cuyama Lamb, a company based on the Gaviota coast that focuses on restorative ecology as a means of restoring native habitats, producing organically grown lamb and fine wool.
Co-owners Jenya Sarah Schneider and Jack Thrift Anderson quickly realized that sheep could serve a natural restorative process and at the same time be used to reduce fuel loads in areas that otherwise would be difficult to manage for wildfire.
“This year marks the fourth time we’ve had grazing at Elings,” Executive Director Dean Noble told me.
Located within a neighborhood environment where a fire could easily spread into homes bordering the park, Elings and other similar open space areas are using what the experts call “planned herbivory” as a means of reducing flammable fuels.
“We’ve also realized that we’re seeing our natives having a better chance at succeeding as well,” Noble said. “They’ve also turned into a bit of a local attraction with families coming out to enjoy them.”
Along with fuels reduction, John Warner, Arroyo Hondo Preserve manager, is experimenting with the use of the lambs as a means of reintroducing native plants into areas that have been dominated by non-natives such as black mustard.
Working in Restrictive Areas
This will be the Eucalyptus Hill Improvement Association’s second year using these rangy herbivores to reduce fuel loading in the canyons below many of the homes. This year, it is using a new company, Ventura Brush Goats, for the project.
“Santa Barbara City Fire recommended we try using goats rather than the sheep,” association president Loy Beardsmore explained to me as we watched dozens of them munching away on most anything they could reach. “We were told the goats could reach higher up and get to leaves the sheep might not be able to reach.”
Given the number of newly sprouting eucalyptus in the canyon and other taller vegetation, anything that can keep a tree or shrub from catching on fire from ground flames is a good thing.
Ventura Brush Goats
VBG is a family operated business that rose out of the lessons learned during the Thomas Fire. At the time, Michael Leicht and his wife owned a pair of dairy goats. What impressed them most was how quickly the goats could eat through the brush surrounding their paddock.
Thus the mantra: “Fire stops where goats graze.”
In 2018, Leicht and his wife invested in their first goat herd, and by 2019, they had increased their numbers into the 70s.
“We soon learned that goats will happily munch through thick stands of thistles, poison oak and other species that are difficult and expensive to remove by hand,” Leicht said, adding that the beauty is how they target plants from the top down, generally eating the seed heads first, and in the process reduce the number of seeds in the soil the following year.
Composting on Legs
Both companies focus on the environmental benefits that the sheep and goats have to offer.
“Goats are like compost piles on legs,” Leicht said, meaning that they eat and poop, and eat and poop, and eat and poop. However, unlike with the manure created by cows or horses, their pellets scatter valuable nutrients that their hooves grind into the soil.
“With their hooves, goats incorporate surface plant matter into thousands of little cups in the soil, which helps on a sloped hillside to retain water during a rain event, preventing top soil run-off,” Leicht added.
Eucalyptus Hill as a Model
It may very well be that the work the Eucalyptus Hill Association is doing can serve as a model for other communities situated on the wildland-urban interface along the South Coast.
The hillsides are steep, the canyons narrow, the vegetation thick, and are dominated by skyscraper-tall eucalyptus trees and other flammable vegetation. In the midst of all of that are the homes of various architectural styles, some by their nature fire resistant; others in need of home hardening to protect them from fire.
There is no prescribed burning on the frontcountry nor the ability to do much in the way of mechanical treatments. The use of chemicals or herbicides is out of the question. Even hauling out the branches, brush or other cuttings is difficult.
Like many other parts of the frontcountry, the Eucalyptus Hill community has not burned in decades.
The conditions here might be called “goat-like” — terrain perfectly suited for the use of the herbivores to keep things in check.
Cost as a Limiting Factor
The biggest limiting factor to using either goats or sheep is cost. The question when funds are limited is how to best spend what little money one has.
Last year, when the Eucalyptus Hill Association was first envisioning use of the herbivores, it was not encouraged to do so. There are no budgets for goats, and using them would require painfully slow environmental reviews, City Fire officials told them. Some in fire encouraged the association to focus more on home hardening and defensible space than the use of the goats.
This year again, the association has been forced to raise the funds itself for the work done by VBG.
“It’s come mainly from donations within the community,” Loy Beardsmore said.
The association is looking to grant possibilities that may help defray costs in the future. One possibility that is now in play that wasn’t last year is the Firewise USA program. It may not only will help defray soaring insurance costs but could provide funding for future use of the goats or lambs.
Future of Funding
Thanks to funding from a state program known as the California Climate Investments, millions of dollars are now becoming available for use in mitigating for climate change. Base on cap-and-trade funds, this provides funding for a range of climate-based programs, including fire mitigation and prevention.
The Santa Barbara County Firesafe Council has put together a grant that would fund both neighborhood chipping and herbivory programs. If successful, there will be funding for the use of lambs and goats throughout the South Coast from Hollister Ranch to the Carpinteria area.
Look for more information regarding these and other programs on the Firesafe Council website.
— Noozhawk outdoor writer Ray Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here for his website, SBoutdoors.com. Follow him on Twitter: @riveray. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.