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Too many weeds? We’ve goat this.

11 April 2022
Horticulture team member Aimee Burton with one of our new staff members
Horticulture team member Aimee Burton with one of our new staff members

Did you say goats?

When you think of sustainable weed management, goats probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind.

These curious creatures are being used more frequently for sustainable weed control as the safety and efficacy of extensive herbicide use continues to come into question, particularly in fragile areas and near waterways.

‘We started with four goats, went up to ten, and now there’s about 20,’ said Anna-Marie Accadia, Operations Leader at SMCT’s Springvale Botanical Cemetery (SBC).

SMCT’s one-year goat trial is being facilitated by GrazeAway, a Melbourne-based goat weeding company run by horticulturalist Colin Arnold, who has been working with goats for over 20 years and has worked with many high profile clients including Knox Council, Metro Trains and Eastlink.

The aim of GrazeAway is to reduce problematic vegetation in sensitive and difficult-to-manage sites before restoring these habitats, all while limiting the use of harmful herbicides. Not only are goats able to eat a high volume of weeds every day, but they also target invasive weed species and can differentiate between certain native floras.

‘My teacher [back at TAFE] actually introduced us to GrazeAway, and I always try and think about a control option to reduce chemical usage,’ said Melinda Connolly, horticulture team member and goat advocate.

This is the ‘first step’ in our Integrated Weed Management plan that will explore new ways to eradicate weeds and restore habitat in an environmentally friendly manner.

How it works

‘Our current goats will be here for around four to six weeks and then Colin will take them out to allow some of the vegetation to grow back. He’ll then bring them back to do some more grazing,’ Anna-Marie explained.

After this period, more native vegetation will be planted as the area is cleared – but don’t worry, the goats will still target the weeds!

‘Goats are really smart, they can tell the difference between weeds and some of the native varieties, it’s referred to as preferential grazing’ Anna-Marie said.

SMCT’s plan as part of this trial is to eventually have 30 to 40 goats within our grounds at SBC, though they won’t be on-site all the one time and there are careful plans in place to ensure the customer and public experience is unaffected by our newcomers.

‘They won’t be roaming around or getting in the way of the day-to-day operations at Springvale,’ Anna-Marie said, explaining that the goats are carefully contained in a fenced-off ‘hidden little area’ out the back of the grounds as the trial period gets underway.

‘They also don’t bleat or make noise, and they’re trained not to be afraid of traffic,’ she added.

‘They’re friendly! But if you do bring your lunch near them, don’t expect it to be there for long!’

Protecting our natural spaces

Goats are thought to be a safer, less invasive method of weed removal that can preserve natural vegetation and have a positive effect on overall ecology.

‘When [herbicide] spray is being put onto the foliage of weeds it disturbs the microbes within the soil,’ Melinda explained. ‘Over time, without microbes there can be no plants, it’s only weeds and they’ll just keep spreading.’

Heavy reliance on herbicide usage doesn’t just have a negative effect on plants – wildlife can be impacted by this change to the soil too.

‘There’s a domino effect – from insects to worms, which then affects birds and lizards,’ Melinda said. ‘A reduction in herbicides and introduction of goats can make this ecosystem thrive.’

‘There’s going to be a diversity of insects and the natural space will be providing safe homes for all the bugs and insects and all the wildlife around the area.’

The goats will be working in a particularly crucial area for limiting herbicide usage.

‘The trial area is adjacent to a waterway, which leads into Melbourne water and our damns and creeks,’ said Anna-Marie. ‘We want to ensure these waterways stay free from harmful chemicals.’

Limiting the use of harmful chemicals is, in fact, so crucial that the companies in charge of these waterways are providing funding to organisations like ours to use these alternative methods.

While this initiative is only in its initial trial period, everyone involved is excited about its potential.

‘The goats are an amazing ecological control method for weed management,’ Melinda said. ‘We just want to keep our environment and native vegetation, as natural as possible without those invasive weeds.’