In a field on Madison’s South Side, Wheezy and her twins Willow and Wilbur are hard at work as they nibble haphazardly at the tall grasses surrounding them.
The trio is part of Madison Parks’ latest technique in tackling invasive plants that are harmful to human health and the environment.
The approach does not involve herbicides or tough human labor — instead, it includes a crew of 40 hungry goats, all of whom have been hired to tend to the Greenside Park, Olin Park and Acewood Conservatory Park grounds this summer.
Sarah Close, who is in charge of Madison Parks’ prescribed grazing program, said the goats play a key role in the city’s battle against invasive species, many of which have wreaked havoc on Madison’s ecosystems.
“I think even if we had the entire city volunteering for us, it would still be very difficult to eradicate every single invasive plant,” Close said. “A lot of these other strategies we’ve used in the past are very intensive and take a lot of time, but the goats do not.”
Those strategies include mowing, hand-pulling, prescribed prairie burns and even the use of chemical pesticides, which the city has vowed to eliminate from public parks due to their toxicity and risk to public health.
While getting rid of non-native plants is a pesky and time-consuming job for most humans, it’s no tough task for goats, according to UW-Madison grazing specialist Jacob Grace.
Due to their four-chambered stomachs, goats can easily graze on plants that are unsafe for humans. Wild parsnip, for example, is a dangerous invasive that can cause burns and blisters on the skin, yet is present in all of Wisconsin’s 72 counties and is edible for goats.
“Goats are browsers, which makes them the perfect livestock for removing unwanted trees and shrubs,” Grace said. “Dealing with invasive trees and shrubs is a never-ending battle for habitat managers, and goats provide us with another tool or ‘weapon’ we can use on them.”
The problem of invasive species is one that extends far beyond Madison, impacting much of Wisconsin and the world, Grace said.
According to the state’s Invasive Plants Association, invasive species reduce plant diversity, inhibit forest regeneration, provide little food value to wildlife and make it difficult for native vegetation to grow. They’re also considered the second-leading threat to endangered species — trailing only habitat destruction.
Invasive species are also expensive to get rid of, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. In 2015, spending on invasive species maintenance totaled about $8.4 million in Wisconsin alone.
Owners Greg Haak and Brooke Hushagen hire the goats out for land management purposes through their business HaakHagen Goat Grazing. Located in Poynette, the HaakHagen farm is home to 88 goats, all of whom have names and unique personalities. There’s Sneezy, Pepper, Cindy, Rella and Vincent Van Goat.
“We can identify them right away,” Haak said of the herd.
The goats frequently rotate between their job on the city’s public lands and other private gigs, and have adapted well in Madison’s parks, Close said.
Though the goats are currently working at Olin Park, they will eventually be back for more grazing at Acewood and Greenside. According to Haak, the goats must return to their jobs every six to eight weeks as invasive plants begin to grow back. Over time, the goats’ presence will cause the vegetation to pop up less until the invasive plants eventually cease to survive.
“It’s not a one-time alternative,” Haak said. “Repetitive grazing is the whole goal.”
Another added benefit of goats is their manure, Hushagen said. When the goats are finished grazing, their waste blankets the ground, resulting in a layer of fertilizer that is beneficial to the soil.
“The goats are lighter on the land and they also leave behind the good stuff,” she said.
While they may be hairy, cuddly and a bit smelly, the goats certainly get the job done. And they have served another unexpected purpose: Drawing more people to Madison’s public parks.
“People just enjoy watching them and seeing them do the hard work for humans,” Hushagen said.
Fran Heinowski, who frequently accompanies granddaughter Sedona to Acewood Park, said people love the goats. In June, she stopped by the trail to watch the goats graze.
“How often do people in the city get to see a herd of goats?” she said. “It’s a very interesting idea and it serves a good purpose.”
According to Close, the community has welcomed the parks’ newest hires. Though it wasn’t the intention of the prescribed grazing program, she said people have continued to come back to the parks — just like invasives.
“They’re really cute and that’s an unintended side effect,” Close said. “It’s not really what we were going for, but if you enjoy it, go for it."