Goats Restoring Land One Bite at a Time

“Biodiversity is like a knit sweater,” Debbie Shetterly explained while overlooking the majestic Hickory Nut Gorge. “If you pull out certain species from the spectrum present in our region, it’s like snagging the sweater. You may end up with five or ten snags, but eventually a particular species is going to disappear and it’s going to be that strand that gets pulled that unravels the whole sweater.”
“In order to protect the biodiversity we have here, we must control the advance of invasive plants,” added Shetterly, the project manager of newly formed WAC-HNG, the Weed Action Coalition of the Hickory Nut Gorge.
Fittingly pronounced “whacking” in reference to its goal of eradicating non-native plants, WAC-HNG is an initiative of Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) to preserve the plethora of unique plant species found only in Western North Carolina and the Hickory Nut Gorge.
Along with CMLC, the coalition includes more than a dozen other partners, including other land trusts, state and federal agencies, and local businesses and residents.
In addition to its towering cliffs and majestic waterfalls, the Hickory Nut Gorge hosts one of the most intense concentrations of unique plant and animals species found in all of North America. In fact, 37 rare plant and 14 rare animal species make the gorge their home. Those numbers are in addition to dozens more species classified as threatened or designated on the state’s “watch list.”
Such biodiversity makes the Hickory Nut Gorge not only worthy of land conservation efforts from within — like conservation easements and land acquisitions undertaken by CMLC and other partners during the last two decades — but protection from outside threats. In recent years, an influx of non-native plants have marched unimpeded into the gorge, crowding out native species and decreasing the native food supply critical to birds and other animals.
WAC-HNG aims to eradicate invasive plants within the gorge, prevent their future entry and spread, and restore the landscape to its native habitat. Doing so will prevent the unwelcome invading plants from outcompeting — and potentially entirely overwhelming and decimating — native plants exclusive to the region.
Among the most prolific — and visible — non-native species is kudzu, which drapes the gorge’s slopes and covers even its tallest trees. The Japanese invader grows with exceptional speed, enveloping almost all other plants as it spreads.
While methods for removing invasive species include manual cutting and application of herbicides, to battle kudzu in particular, WAC-HNG has begun employing a more clever solution: goats.
“Goats are an extremely viable method of removing kudzu in large quantities,” according to David Lee, WAC-HNG’s AmeriCorps Hickory Nut Gorge steward. “They are also chemical-free, require minimal labor, and consume vegetation even on the steepest of slopes — all while remaining cost effective.”
While not useful in areas where rare plants may exist, the eating power of goats is a perfect match for kudzu in locations where no native habitat remains.
This fall in Bat Cave, WAC-HNG hired 31 goats from Horse Shoe-based Wells Farm owner Ron Searcy. The goats were deployed on two acres enclosed by an electric fence. For 10 days, they feasted on the steep slopes above the Rocky Broad River adjacent to N.C. Highway 9. Treatment occurred on land owned by the Community of Transfiguration on property that may one day be conserved by CMLC.
Beforehand, kudzu not only covered the slopes but much of the river, too. Following “treatment by goats,” the kudzu was almost entirely eradicated. “The difference was startling,” Lee said.
With the kudzu removed, the area was seeded with grain rye to stabilize the slopes and prevent erosion. Seeding with native wildflowers will take place following two more treatments with goats, scheduled for subsequent years and resuming next spring.
The kudzu removal-by-goats was funded through a N.C. Forest Service Firewise grant. Goat treatments to remove kudzu and other invasive plants are planned for additional private and public lands throughout the Hickory Nut Gorge in the coming year, including at Chimney Rock State Park.
According to Shetterly, a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will enable a cost-share program to offset the expense of the goats when WAC-HNG partners with landowners in the gorge. “We already have commitments from five private landowners for goat treatments in the spring,” she said.
While WAC-HNG rented the goats for the treatment this fall, the high demand from area landowners and businesses is outstripping the capacity of local farms to supply goats. To overcome that obstacle, Lee is in the process of developing his own goat enterprise to better enable WAC-HNG to continue invasive plant removal in the gorge. “We’ll be goat-ready by spring,” he said.
Lee expects to own 15 to 20 goats initially, with the potential for more. The goats will be hosted near Lake Lure, providing easier access to their treatment sites in the gorge. With use of local goats, transportation costs for both delivery and monitoring will be eliminated. Additionally, use of a local herd will prevent the potential of introducing more invasive species from outside the gorge.
Landowners in the Hickory Nut Gorge interested in working removing invasive plants on their property with goats can contact WAC-HNG through its website at www.wachng.org.
Shetterly and Lee will work with landowners to develop a site management plan for their properties, which is a prerequisite for invasive plant treatment with goats or other methods.
Shetterly can’t emphasize enough the importance of controlling and eliminating invasive plant species in our region. “There is a huge disconnect in how people see conservation. Many view it as ‘we need to save land for scenery or public recreation,’ but it’s much deeper than that,” she said.
“It’s really our existence that is threatened. Biodiversity is the essence of our existence. Without our biological diversity, we — humans — as a species wouldn’t be here.”
Peter Barr is trails and outreach coordinator for Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy. Since 1994, CMLC has protected more than 25,000 acres in the
French Broad River watershed, Hickory Nut Gorge, and Blue Ridge Escarpment. For more information, visit www.carolinamountain.org.

by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator

Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.



Please download the current version of Internet Explorer. IE 6 is no longer supported.