A team of 14 kudzu-crunching goats is hard at work removing the notorious non-native invasive plant at a nature conservancy's farm in Alexander, clearing the way for an ambitious reforestation plan.
"Goats absolutely love kudzu," says Lauren Reker of KD Ecological Services, which has been hired by Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy to remove the kudzu. "Kudzu is often thought to be a poster child for non-native invasive plants."
The Conservancy's 100 acre community farm is home to an incubator program for beginning farmers, but many parts are overrun by kudzu and other non-native invasives such as multi-flora rose, Japanese honeysuckle and oriental bittersweet.
"In the '50's, we were up against erosion -- post Dustbowl, " explains Chris Link, manager of the farm. "There were all types of steps taken. One of them that was suggested was to plant kudzu, which goes all over the ground and definitely holds back soil from eroding, but it is also quite invasive."
Reker adds that goats have a "virtually impenetrable palate" and consume not only the tender leaves of the plants, but also the woody stems and even thorns. She says the continued defoliation and stem damage from the hungry goats is what ultimately controls the targeted plants. "Each of the fourteen goats has a very strong interest in exploring the area, climbing up to grab vines that are beginning to suffocate and dominate our tree species and shrub layer."
The Conservancy plans to reintroduce short leaf pine trees to a one acre portion of the plot once the goats' work is done. Link says that using goats to clear the steep terrain instead of machinery or chemicals is safer and is a "win-win." " We want to use more of a symbiotic method, which is the goats are eating, they're living and sustaining off of this and we're controlling the kudzu."
It's not as simple as just setting goats loose in the fields and putting them to work. Reker says there is hard science at work in determining how many goats per acre are used for the targeted plants, for what duration, and how many times per plot. "When kudzu is the primary target species, three applications of goat herbivory, which each reduce the target vegetation by greater than 95 percent, within a year for 2 to 3 consecutive years, is often necessary."
KD Ecological's herd is a mix of dairy goats and New Zealand Kikos. Reker says many were rescued from people who didn't anticipate the year-round cost of care during winter months when the goats' favorite plants aren't as plentiful. "At the forefront is animal welfare. Their health and well-being is paramount to us. They all have a forever home with the business and when they get too old to keep working, they can retire and continue to receive all the care they need."