Goats enlisted in battle on Wissahickon weeds

Posted: July 20, 2011

Any manager of natural lands knows the plague

of invasive plants. Now, the Friends of the Wissahickon are trying a new weapon: goats.

The group has chosen six test sites in Wissahickon Valley Park with comparable terrain and conditions.

At two of the sites, the herbicide glyphosate will be applied in midsummer and again in late summer. At two more, volunteers will yank away weeds.

The last two will be the purview of six Angora goats owned by Yvonne Post, who reports that "goats like to eat vertically, and anything on the ground they will pull."

After each site visit, a botanist will assess the progress. The informal study is planned to last five years, but it will be helpful to see how this first season trends.

I'm betting on the goats. A friend once brought his miniature goats to my property - I have no idea why - and the only way we could keep them from devouring the shrubs was to toss them pretzels. They went through an entire bag and then still headed for the hostas.

In Mongolia, there is a traditional greeting that literally translates to "Have you tied up your dog?"

The expression has real meaning in the countryside, where every herding family has at least one such animal, often as many as six. They provide protection and early warning of approaching strangers. Dogs are not pets here. They are never allowed inside the gers, the traditional, portable homes. These working animals have amazing abilities to spot anything out of the ordinary and set off an alarm.

They are mostly big, shaggy creatures that are impossible to categorize by breed. The more friendly ones are given free rein and wander, untethered, near the living area. The more aggressive ones are chained to short posts by day and released to patrol the area after their owners have gone to bed.

Often when we are sleeping near a herding family, I hear the dogs' alarm barks during the night and wonder what has triggered them. It might be wolves.

During recent interviews, many herders have spoken about the losses they have suffered from wolf predation.

Today we saw proof of it - or at least proof of the presence of wolves. While documenting the taking down, moving, and erecting of a herder's ger as the family moved from one valley to the next - a distance of about five miles - they proudly showed us a wolf skin taken from an animal that their dogs had caught stalking their sheep.

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