The goats are back! Allegheny GoatScape fights invasive overgrowth on campus
This past week, the Carnegie Mellon community welcomed a herd of thirteen goats and one donkey to campus from Allegheny GoatScape, a local nonprofit whose mission is to reduce unwanted and invasive vegetation in public spaces by using goats for browsing. Students and faculty watched the hill between the Purnell Center for the Arts and the Gates Hillman building fade from green and overgrown to a more managed brush. However, many people may be unaware of the impact these goats have on local sustainability.
Goats are an extremely effective and sustainable means to target invasive species in Pittsburgh. They are used as an alternative to gas-powered machinery and herbicides or pesticides harmful to the environment. Goats are advantageous compared to other agricultural animals because of their four-chambered stomach. When goats eat an invasive plant such as poison ivy or poison oak, their stomach also digests the seeds of the plant — unlike birds — meaning that the seeds are not then released in their waste. This means they do not further add to the spread of invasive plant species. Goats also have a split hoof, which makes them particularly equipped to navigate steep inclines characteristic of Pittsburgh terrain. While goats mainly eat the green leaves and shrubs, they do not target the roots of the invasive plants. Though they are a very effective tool for invasive plant species management, they do not kill the invasive plant, which means that it likely will return in the coming season.
Invasive species, as defined by the USDA, are species not native to the environment and whose introduction causes or is likely to harm the economy, the environment, or human health. Invasive species — both plants and animals — can impede or destroy the growth of plants and animals in the local ecosystem, and particularly are a risk for endangered plants and animals. The goats in Pittsburgh target invasive species such as knotweed, poison ivy, and poison oak which threaten the growth of native plants in Pennsylvania.
Hillary Steffes, the Chief Goat Herder for Allegheny GoatScape, is curious to understand the relationship between soil and invasive plants to create a long-term solution against their growth. Recently in Pittsburgh, randomized soil samples were collected from areas that were not sites for previous factories or situated on the riverfront, and it was found that Pittsburgh soil has a high level of trace metals in it and has been depleted of many of its nutrients, classifying the soil quality as poor. Invasive plant species tend to thrive in soil that has been more ‘disturbed,’ meaning the soil is lacking in nutrients. In Pittsburgh’s case, the lack of nutrients is a result of the post-industrial society. Steffe’s goal is to develop a more dynamic and collaborative approach which would include a soil assessment of the land the goats are browsing to improve soil quality and sustain healthy plant growth. This partnership of soil science and sustainable agriculture would create long term preventative methods to combat invasive species.
Allegheny GoatScape has four herds of goats which cycle through Pittsburgh’s parks and greenspaces. “Team Diamond,” named after the donkey of the herd, grazed through Carnegie Mellon this week. The thirteen goats and one donkey live on campus for the duration of the week, and Diamond serves as their protector from canines such as coyotes or other animals that would potentially try to harm the goats at night. The thirteen goats are a collection of Alpine, Nubian, Nigerian Dwarf, and La Mancha breeds, and all have their own names and personalities. All of the goats that come to Allegheny GoatScape are rescued, and the majority of them were previously owned by dairy farmers. Oftentimes in agricultural settings such as dairy farms, the animals are not treated as well, and people then assume that they do not have personalities. “That is one of my favorite parts about the job,” community engagement coordinator Erin Guaghan said, “when the goats are out in the community people who come to visit them get to see that these animals have dynamic personalities and are very affectionate.”
Carnegie Mellon has a long history of welcoming goats to our campus, going back to the early 1900s. In the book "The History of Carnegie Tech," one professor recalls being late for a meeting due to having to dodge the goats that were roaming the campus. While it is unlikely that professors will buy that excuse today, Carnegie Mellon continues to invite these four-legged hardworking friends targeting invasive species to campus.
If you are interested in learning more about volunteering with Allegheny GoatScape, you can contact Erin, the volunteer coordinator, at Erin@AlleghenyGoatScape.org. Team Diamond and the other three herds can be visited at Frick Park, Schenley Park, or the other parks they will be working in. An interactive map of the goat’s locations and more information about the work of Allegheny GoatScape and the different team members can be found at AlleghenyGoatScape.org.