Goats Eat Way Through Fire Hazard

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Well, they sure eat and fart a lot," says Owen Cadigan, an assistant building manager at the Lawrence Hall of Science, surveying the herd of chomping goats. "Sometimes in the morning they get frisky and butt each other with their heads."

Appearing as popcorn dotting the hills above the UC Berkeley campus, hundreds of goats have been chowing down on the grassy areas surrounding the museum for the past week, part of a cheaper, more environmentally friendly fire prevention program.

From the end of April to early May, the grassy California hills begin to dry out, and unless cut, the long grasses can be a major fire hazard.

The goats replace more conventional methods of fire prevention such as controlled fires, weed cutters and good old-fashioned lawn mowing.

UC Berkeley has rented the goats for nine years from Goats-R-Us, a goat lease company based out of Orinda. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, East Bay Regional Parks and other local organizations also use the goats.

"It's a nice, clean, environmental way to do it," says Berkeley Deputy Fire Chief David Orth. "And the goats eat everything."

The Lawrence Hall of Science sits on top of a hill, making the area too steep for prescribed fires, which can get out of control. The slope also makes using a lawn mower tricky.

Staff/Anna Browne
A member of Goats-R-Us' crack team of living lawn mowers pauses between bites of grass. The goats are used to dispose of the grass to prevent fires.

"Usually for step property, the only way to do it is going in with weed cutters," Orth says.

Cadigan, who helps maintain the grounds of the museum, says he appreciates the goats taking over grass duties.

"It's nice having the goats around," Cadigan says. "Half of the stuff on the hill is crap, it's a major pain to get rid of it."

At $500 to $800 per acre, the goats are also more cost-efficient than other methods of fire prevention, Orth says.

A shepherd and his two sheepdogs look after the goats, herding them from hillside to hillside, making sure they do not leave the land too barren.

If there are certain types of plants that need to be protected, renters usually request sheep instead of goats, Orth says.

"Sheep are usually a little more discriminating," he says.

The goats are penned in by an electrified fence, both to prevent runaway goats, and to keep dogs or other wild animals out. When the goats finish clearing the area, the shepherd rolls up the fence and send them to another spot on the hill.

The goats usually clear about an acre a day, says their shepherd, Domingo Fuentes.

Though the goats give off an interesting smell and leave their droppings all over the hillside, officials have yet to receive any complaints.

"A goat has a naturally 'goaty' smell to it, but people don't seem to mind," Orth says. "They're moved along on a pretty regular basis, and pellets act a natural fertilizer."

Those working around the goats say that they hardly noticed the smells and the bleating after a few days.

"They're not that exciting," Cadigan says. "They seem nice, but the dogs are the best part, because they're always running around."


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