At Hot Springs National Park, rangers are fighting to protect an ecosystem besieged by invasive species, and recently, they turned to a biological weapon, a mercenary army whose absence of mercy is matched only by their competitiveness around food.
Mary Stafford started out a few years ago by keeping a herd of goats at her house in Vilonia. She says they make great pets. They have big personalities and puckish charm.
“The King and Queen of all is Myrtle and Walter. They are Lamanchas. And they are retired dairy goats, except for I don’t know what the purpose of Walter was… but…because he’s fixed,” she says.
“And then under them the second leaders are the twisted sisters, and we just call them both ‘sister.’”
The sisters head up one of two pygmy goat herds that Stafford mixed in with the Lamanchas when she decided to turn her passion for the goats into a business. Now she rents her 37 goats out to clear land. After all, there’s almost 150 stomachs between them.
“They basically shift between like an hour or so of eating then an hour or two of sitting in the shade chewing their cud,” Says Hot Springs National Park intern William Harrison.
He has been monitoring the goats’ ability to cut back invasive species like English Ivy, Periwinkle, Privet, and Lespedeza.
The staff bring the goats 11 gallons of ice and 15 gallons of cold water in the morning. They feed them Triscuit crackers twice daily in order to take attendance.
Intern Emily Roberts says the goats are always hungry. “Oh yeah … they’re crowded all around you, trying to reach the privet leaves …. They’re really competitive for some reason. They want, like, the freshest leaves.”
“They are not very nice to each other,” Stafford says. “They are bullies.”
“Walter and Myrtle get the first of everything and if they don’t they will send the other goats flying. They’ll butt ‘em. They’re quite rude.”
The Park Service’s Natural Resource Program Manager Shelley Todd will spend the next year following up, checking to see if the invasive plants reappear.
“Basically everything native, you know, all of our pines, our oaks, our hickories, our chestnuts, our elms. As far as the herbaceous vegetation, we have native grasses, like the Little Bluestem and the Big Bluestem. They don’t grow as well as the invasives do,” she says.
Right now, the project seems to be mostly working. The goats have nearly cleared their current plot after a week of grazing, and they are happy too.
“This is especially awesome because there’s such variety,” says Stafford.
“They all do have their favorite plants. Some of them love privet the most. Some of them love honeysuckle the most. Some of them love ivy the most. This is wonderful for them because of the diversity of plants.”
Some of the goats rub against trees, scratching themselves. Others laze in the sun on rocks, digesting. One of the disqualifiers, Todd said, was the goats’ behavior toward native species. Specifically, would they eat or destroy any?
They behaved admirably.
These goats may not know it, but they’re here for a reason. They were part of a five week trial meant to gauge this natural predation of invasive plants against the somewhat unnatural presence of nearly 40 bovids in the national park.
The goats were trucked back to Vilonia July 28, and though Todd and her staff are surveying the test plots, IDing the standing plants against the devoured, and “working on our before and after comparison,” she said that anecdotally, the goats did great.
The only invasive the goats didn’t seem to care for was the periwinkle (in Latin, vinca).
“If it does work, and it works well, my next goal is have them eating all of the English Ivy” in the wooded area north of the thermal water cascade at the top of Arlington Lawn and south of Fountain Street.