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Stop me if You’ve Herd this One

You might have heard about a funny, cute, excitable herd of goats feasting in Idlewild Park in Cranbrook, British Columbia. The goats of Vahana Nature Rehabilitation were at the park in May eating up a patch of Canada thistle. Canada thistle is an invasive plant that is considered harmful. Invasive species are plants and animals not native to BC. 

Based in nearby Kimberley, Vahana provides vegetation control throughout southeastern BC using a herd of specialized goats and a unique method called target grazing. Target grazing is a growing industry in Canada in the ongoing battle against invasive plants, says Cailey Chase, who operates Vahana.

“The goats will eat everything down, and we’ll bring them back in, and they’ll eat everything down again,” she says.

Cailey has made a career of tackling invasive plants. Initially, she used standard methods such as chemical sprays. 

“I worked with herbicide spray, and I saw how much it repelled people from the land and me. If I was out spraying, they were like, ‘oh, that smells terrible! You shouldn’t be spraying.’ You get a lot of flack. Once I got into the goats, I noticed they draw people to the land, and it’s a lot easier to teach people about invasive plants.”

Keeping an eye on the goats, hard at work clearing invasive species. Photos courtesy of Cailey Chase and Bailey Repp.

Invasive Species Have Goat to Go

Bailey Repp, education and communications coordinator at the East Kootenay Invasive Species Council, says there is a lot at stake right in our backyard regarding invasives. 

“We have so many wonderful and unique areas in the Kootenays: a one-of-a-kind rainforest up by Revelstoke, gorgeous grasslands here in the Rocky Mountain trench, cedar hemlock forests up by Nelson. We have wonderful microclimates and special, special ecosystems that are so different. Invasive species target these,” says Bailey. 

Bailey feels personally moved to stop invasives. 

“One of the reasons I live in the Kootenays is to recreate and be in these areas and share them with amazing animals like wolverines or ungulates (large mammals with hooves). We want to keep our unique and special ecosystems safe.” 

So why are invasives no good?

“Three big factors make invasive species so harmful: they do environmental harm, economic harm and social harm,” says Bailey.

The goats getting down to work at Idlewild Park in Cranbrook.

Many rare and endangered native species are at risk of extinction because of invasive species. Invasives don’t have any natural predators, so they spread incredibly fast. 

“Worldwide, invasive species are one of the top contributors to habitat loss, causing biodiversity loss. This promotes climate change. There’s definitely a connection there,” said Bailey. Biodiversity means having a wide range of plants and animals. 

“Invasives thrive in disturbed areas. Often it goes hand in hand with humans disturbing these natural areas when they move in,” says Bailey.

Cailey often deals with land that was overused before the invasives came in. 

“I’m working on the ski hill right now in Kimberley in the work yard where they drive the heavy snowcats and trucks, and the ground is very packed down, dry and dusty, and the only thing flourishing here is knapweed. It’s awful, it’s not a nice environment, and I’m camping right in the middle of it. We don’t want to see that happen anymore.” 

Goats are a more environmentally friendly option than herbicides to remove invasive species.

Invasives cause higher maintenance costs to public parks like Idlewild and private properties. According to Environment Canada, the estimated yearly lost revenue caused by just 16 invasive species is from $13 to $35 billion. Invasive species damage to the agricultural and forestry industries results in around $7.5 billion of lost income yearly. There are estimated yearly crop losses in the BC agriculture industry of over $50 million. Species such as knapweed infest rangelands and reduce forage quality for livestock.

Invasive plants are even known to lead to hotter and more frequent wildfires. Some species can cause skin irritation, blisters, scarring and breathing problems in humans. Toxins in some plants make them harmful to animals. Invasives can disturb human recreation sites by making trails impassable, damaging fishing streams, and puncturing tires.

Cailey is doing hard, dusty, dirty, and essential work. She is motivated by the increasing impact of our changing weather patterns.

“With climate change, weeds will be the ones flourishing if we don’t keep them under control,” she says.

We’ve Goat to Do What We’ve Goat to Do

Goats have solid and narrow mouths designed for stripping leaves, flowers, and chewing branches. In chewing on invasive species, the plants become stressed and can even die. The goats eat the invasives before they seed, weakening the perennial plant.

According to Cailey, goats are a holistic way to treat the land and a much-needed additional tool in the toolbox of integrated pest management.  

“Repeated applications of herbicides, over years, are not sustainable. Especially when it has become the tool most widely depended on to control weeds. Weeds like spotted knapweed do well in low nutrient soil. With the loss of the health of our topsoil, we’re have increased plants like spotted knapweed take over because they can survive in soil that our native plants don’t like. Spotted knapweed is not a nice plant. It makes a place uninhabitable.” 

Denise Daigle, a long-time, dedicated patron of Vahana Nature Rehabilitation, rides Diamond, the horse, while Winston, the Jack Russell terrier, hitches a ride.

There are many other benefits to the goat approach. Goats digest plant matter and release it back to the soil. The manure helps the ground retain water and makes the soil healthier. 

“Goats will do the work. Pulling, spraying, clearing excessive vegetation is back-breaking and costly labour, especially if you involve equipment. Goats clear the majority of the plant mass, and when managed correctly, will kill the plants,” Cailey explains.

So how do the goats know to eat only the invasive plants? It’s all about Cailey’s relationship with her herd.

“Goats are best for big large patches of weeds. Often the invasive species is the tallest, juiciest thing to eat. It’s very practical, the way that they work. If you’re willing to work with them, like give them an appetizer before you send them right to the weeds, they will settle down and munch on the leaves that you want them to eat more willingly and more efficiently.”

Cailey’s work is changing the way communities understand invasive species. 

“People love the goats. The goats are a fantastic medium for teaching people about invasive plants and increasing awareness because they bring people back to the land.” 

Is this a photo bomb or just a dog who likes to have her picture taken? IshaMolly (in the foreground) and Bellah are the guardian dogs for the Vahana herd.

Hoofing it Towards a Stronger Future

Bailey also believes that there is hope in the goat solution.

“It’s an awesome alternative to using something like herbicides. I would love to see more of it in the future.”

Bailey is a fan of Cailey and has seen the herder in action with her goats.  

“Cailey and her goats are pretty darn awesome. We recently did a community weed pull with them. We can get many more volunteers out to pull weeds with the goats than just asking people to come out on their own. She’s doing amazing work.”

Bailey is all about inspiring communities to take action. 

“We all wish we could do something about habitat loss, or we wish we could go back in time and make an impact on climate change. Preventing invasive species is a way that we can all do this. We can get ahead of it. We can change that future. We can protect our wild spaces.” 

Cailey will keep working her way through fields of invasives with her hungry herd. 

“My favourite part of working with the goats is being part of mother nature’s plan and getting to hang out with them every day. Enjoying their personalities and being part of the herd.”

Note: To learn more, visit Vahana Goats on Facebook and Instagram.

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