Bring in the goats….

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is working to restore former cropland to mixedwood forest at its Fleming Property northeast of Spruce Grove, Alberta. 

It is a rich natural landscape, with mixedwood boreal forest and wetlands providing vital habitat for wildlife, including birds such as warblers and woodpeckers. But part of the site was once used for farming crops and NCC restoration staff are working to return it to forest.

Native grasses were planted to provide ground cover, and then spruce trees were planted on the former crop land to start the restoration process. But invasive weed species took root among the newly planted trees, competing with them for water and nutrients and stunting their growth.

The team turned to an unconventional but very effective solution – goats. Other solutions, like pulling and herbicides, might harm the delicate tree seedlings. 

Beginning in 2018, about 500 goats were brought in each summer, accompanied by a skilled herder and shepherding dogs. Temporary electric fencing was put in place to concentrate the goats’ efforts on the targeted areas and to prevent them from wandering off, and the goats were monitored to ensure they were eating the target invasive plants.

NCC photo

As goats tend to prefer to eat weeds, their use in restoration is known as target browsing. The goats tended to stick together, moving methodically across the land to devour the unwanted vegetation, says Alia Snively, who leads NCC’s restoration work in Alberta.

“It’s very intensive, but the herders make sure that the goats are primarily eating the weeds and move them to a new area if they start to nibble on the desirable vegetation,” says Alia. “It’s a great way to organically and selectively control weeds.”

Beyond weed control, the goats help maintain a healthy balance of litter –  the decaying plant matter on the soil’s surface which moderates soil temperatures and moisture levels – improving the ecological conditions for forest regeneration.

With invasive weeds controlled by the goats, the restoration team moved on to introducing greater biodiversity to the site. Five different species of native shrubs, totalling 276 shrubs, were planted in September.

“We were there in July, and when we were walking around the site, we saw some native shrubs moving in as well,” says Alia. “It was a very encouraging sign to see.”

To help ensure the shrubs thrive, the restoration team will install “mulch mats” around them. These biodegradable mats serve to suppress surrounding vegetation by blocking light, so the shrubs can establish themselves and contribute to the site’s increasing biodiversity.

Using goats in ecological restoration at the Fleming Property is a remarkable example of creative problem-solving and sustainable restoration practices, says the NCC.

Cover image: Nature Conservancy of Canada

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