BRAINERD, Minn. — It is a tasty problem for herbivores and one that the goats in Brainerd were all too eager to chew on.
European buckthorn is encroaching on Rotary Riverside Park in Brainerd, but the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District recently hired goats to manage the invasive species by eating it.
“By using the goats, it reduces the amount of herbicides that we’re putting into the ground, especially since Rotary Park is so covered in wetlands and right on the Mississippi River,” said Clayton Lenk, a Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District forester.
Minnesota Native Landscapes, an Otsego, Minn.-based ecological restoration company, provided the Spanish goats that arrived at the park Thursday, Sept. 3, for the multi-day project organized by the district, the Brainerd Parks and Recreation Department and the Brainerd Rotary Club.
“We’re just trying to reduce the amount of chemicals we put on the ground as much as possible to try to keep that water quality intact,” Lenk said of the park.
European buckthorn was first brought to America from Europe as a popular hedging material, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, but became a nuisance plant, forming dense thickets in forests, yards, parks and roadsides.
“They crowd out native plants and displace the native shrubs and small trees in the mid-layer of the forest where many species of birds nest,” according to department officials.
Over the past four years, the Crow Wing Soil and Water Conservation District and the Conservation Corps of Minnesota and Iowa have been managing buckthorn using a cut and spray method to remove seed trees as well as thickets too tall for grazing.
“It’ll actually be done in three separate pieces,” Lenk said of the sections of the park where the goats will eat the plant. “It’s not just one spot. It’s kind of three targeted areas within the park where previous management has taken place to kind of get it ready for this grazing.”
The goats will eat buckthorn from 8 acres of the park. The goats at the park could range from 20 to 100 depending upon how many are available on any given day and it could take several days to a week to complete the Rotary Riverside Park project, according to Lenk.
“This is something that's new for us — just kind of a pilot project for us, if you would — just to see how effective the goat grazing is for buckthorn. We’ve read in other studies where it’s been successful, so we’re going to try and give it a shot,” Lenk said.
The project cost is estimated between $4,000 and $5,000, with funds coming from a Minnesota Conservation Partners Legacy grant.
“The grazing, I think, is about $500 an acre, so it’s not necessarily cheap, but at the same time herbicide and labor and everything like that isn’t necessarily cheap either, so it’ll probably be pretty comparable in price,” Lenk said.
According to Minnesota Native Landscapes, the benefits of grazing also include: ecologically appropriate habitat enhancement, local and regenerative food production, increased rate of nutrient cycling, improved water infiltration rates and targeted vegetation management.
“Buckthorn grows so thick that it almost makes it impassable for wildlife and for people to get through these areas and spreads so prolifically because it produces little berries that birds eat and then they transport and drop the seeds elsewhere,” Lenk said.
Targeted areas at the park are lush with buckthorn seedlings according to Lenk. The goats are deployed using simple electric fencing and water systems, according to Minnesota Native Landscapes’ website.
“With goats, they’re not really picky about what they eat, so they won’t eat just the buckthorn. They’ll eat everything that’s there within their enclosure, but the buckthorn is so dense in these areas. That’s pretty much all there is,” Lenk said.
Using goats will open up the entire understory of these targeted areas, allowing the planting of other species that will take the place of the encroaching buckthorn such as oak and pine, which are native species, Lenk said.
“The overall goal is to try to reduce, you know, the amount of herbicide use on the ground and for the water quality and also for the habitat and trying to promote that natural, native vegetation,” Lenk said.
Returning these areas back to a natural state will increase the forest health as well as provide better habitat for wildlife and better recreational experiences for park-goers, according to Lenk.
“If it’s successful, we’ll start probably implementing it a lot more for a lot of the other restoration projects we do,” Lenk said. “And if people want to come out and check out the goats, too, they’re more than able to do so as long as they’re not pestering them and that sort of stuff.”