Do you remember your introduction to poison ivy? Maybe it was an unfortunate brush with the plant itself, maybe a couplet helping identify the notorious weed. Whatever your experience, no one likes it – except for Austin’s newest trail groomers. For the next three to four weeks, the Trail Conservancy has employed 150 goats to eat the vile vine and other invasive species along the Hike-and-Bike Trail on Town Lake.
These are no ordinary goats; before they begin working, they must pass a training program that involves respecting fence lines, staying together as a herd, and remaining focused on their task. Unlike most humans, they aren’t allergic to poison ivy and don’t mind the heat, and unlike machinery, they don’t compact the soil or damage trees. The Trail Conservancy hopes to get enough funding to employ the goats periodically to help manage the poison ivy.
Trail users won’t have to worry about giving goats the right of way on their morning hike or bike, as they are corralled on the sides of the trail. They’ll first tackle sections along the stretch from MoPac to Lamar before rotating to other areas, depending on their progress. The goats stay on the trail all hours of the day under constant supervision, and visitors should refrain from interacting with them. “They’re kind of like service animals, right? Let them do their work,” says Trail Conservancy CEO Heidi Anderson, adding, “They’re knee deep in poison ivy. Even the poison ivy getting on the goat can transfer to the person.”
Anderson describes removing poison ivy from the trail as “a constant battle.” Due to the Hike-and-Bike Trail’s proximity to Town Lake, herbicides are out of the question because of water quality concerns, and pulling ivy from steep shorelines with thick concentrations of the plant can be dangerous for volunteers. But goats don’t mind.
While this is the first time the trail has seen this particular strategy, Anderson says the program has had recent success in San Antonio and Houston. Once the goats mow down targeted sections, the Trail Conservancy mulches the areas and replaces the invasive species with native plants.
“They have four-hoof drive,” says Carolyn Carr, co-owner of Rent-a-Ruminant Texas, the company that supplies the goats. “So they can go up and down terrain that we normally can’t go into with lawn mowers or brush cutters.”
In addition to her co-owner title, Carr also serves as “chief naming officer.” All goats are tracked with ear tags with a name, instead of a number. “I do take name requests, but they have to match the goats’ personalities,” Carr says. Names include Mocha, Romeo, Nelson, Sebastian, Moon Pie, and Wynonna. Some goats become fan favorites, and Carr says visitors will travel to see specific goats as they work.
“We hope trail users enjoy their morning walk or run with the goats,” says Anderson. “It’s a really innovative and creative alternative to some of the other tactics we could use to eradicate poison ivy.”
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.