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Grazing Goats Cut Fire Hazard: Placer Cities Discover Natural Alternative to Trimming the Brush.

August 2, 2007

By Jennifer K. Morita, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Aug. 2–Bleating goats and sheep have replaced the noisy drone of a Weed Eater in some communities’ efforts to reduce fire risks.

A growing number of communities and government agencies are turning to four-legged grass trimmers to clear overgrown vegetation that can be hazardous during the hot, dry wildfire season.

This year is the first time Rocklin city officials have used goats and sheep to get rid of pesky poison oak, star thistle and other spindly plants that grow under trees, said Public Works Director Kent Foster.

Earlier this summer, residents living near a hilly, open area raised concerns about the fire hazard, prompting Foster to look into hiring goats and sheep rather than using a more conventional approach.

“The cost is actually cheaper than if we were go in and spray pesticides or use any hand crews or heavy equipment,” Foster said.

The city hired Nevada County-based the Goat Works for $11,500 to bring in a herd of about 250 animals that have been grazing 23 acres in Rocklin since the week of July 16.

Herdsmen and dogs will guide the animals, even diverting them away from protected native plants, until they complete their task in mid-August.

This week, the city of Roseville also let loose some 450 goats in a critical grass-heavy area.

“These goats have been proven to efficiently and effectively reduce fire hazards by consuming large quantities of grass, which can be very dangerous if it becomes overgrown,” Roseville Fire Chief Ken Wagner said. “The animals can cover a large area in a small period of time.”

In addition to saving money, the livestock approach is also proving more efficient and environmentally friendly, according to Foster.

The 23 acres south of Park and Farrier drives are on steep terrain that can be difficult for human crews to reach on foot, let alone with heavy equipment.

Spraying pesticides isn’t effective, either, because the kinds of chemicals the city can use wouldn’t get rid of poison oak or star thistle.

Goats will clear brush up to 6 feet high, while sheep will eat grass down to roughly an eighth of an inch.

The grazing animals are taking the place of low-intensity fires that once burned as part of the foothills’ natural cycle, Foster added.

For decades, natural fires were suppressed, allowing underbrush to grow rampant and fuel fast-moving wildfires.

“In the 1940s, with the Smokey the Bear concept, we eliminated fires from the ecosystem,” Foster said. “Now we’re trying to get back to what Mother Nature had made a part of the natural life cycle.”

And unlike gas- or electric-powered weed trimmers, goats and sheep digest the vegetation and leave “calling cards” that replenish the soil.

“The goats and sheep eat everything down and basically convert it into manure that is returned to the soil,” Foster said.

Brad Fowler, who owns the Goat Works along with his wife, Alana, and partner Lee Hazeltine, said using grazing animals to trim vegetation isn’t a new concept.

“After the Oakland Hills fire, they started using goats in the brush,” Fowler said. “But I think people are becoming more aware of it. … I’m seeing a lot of different cities and government agencies come on board.

“It just makes sense. It’s healthier for everything. It’s like a four-legged fire.”

Foster said the new approach has been so successful, Rocklin city officials are already planning to use the grazing animals again next year.

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

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