Hoofed and hungry, 20 goats from Harford County descended on the Glen Arboretum, a campus forest, at Towson University on Sept. 17 and 18 to eat invasive species.

The goats, from Harmony Church Farm in Darlington, have been visiting campus every year since 2014. They’re herded to the Glen Arboretum — commonly just called the Glen — a 10-acre patch of forest in the middle of the university’s campus, and left to eat. The goats are fans of invasive plant species like English ivy, Asian bittersweet and garlic mustard.

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“The goats will clear this out, and then we have student volunteers who come out and pull the root stems,” said James Hull, a retired Towson professor and director of the Glen.

Hull said about 200 student volunteers will turn out to the Glen and either pull out the roots of invasive plants or work to plant new trees in the forest. Hull eventually wants the Glen to become a “living museum” that houses all 120 or so tree species that are native to Maryland. At last count, he said, the forest is home to 108 native species.

Harmony Church Farm specializes in forest-clearing work, said Roni Cassilly, a former schoolteacher and owner of the farm. She has 22 goats that she takes around to private landowners and the town of Bel Air to munch on invasive plants. Invasive species are often targeted for clearing because they can prevent native plants from growing and thriving.

“Invasive plants are taking over all of Maryland’s forest,” Cassilly said. “Lucky for us, goats like the invasives.”

Towson University paid Harmony Church Farm for two days of goat grazing with grants from Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. and the Chesapeake Bay Trust.

The goats, all of which Cassilly can identify by sight and name, typically eat off leaves, so human workers can go in behind and snip vines and pull roots. She first acquired goats to manage the forest that’s on her Harford County property.

She originally planned to sell goat dairy products, but quickly found a market for landowners who want an eco-friendly way to manage invasive species. Cassilly also said she was bad at selling baby goats, a necessity in dairy farming.

“In order to milk your goats, they have to have babies. I couldn’t sell the babies; I sold one set,” Cassilly said. “And then [the mother goat and I] both cried for a week.”

People like to think livestock animals like goats don’t react much to being separated from their offspring, Cassilly said, but “they do know, and they do love their babies.”

“I’m not really a good farmer,” she said, laughing.

She said she prefers caring for the goats and offering them to fight invasive species.

Hull, who used to teach plant ecology, said he liked using goats on Towson’s campus because it’s a green option.

Machinery to do the work would take up too much space and could damage the root systems of native plants that belong in the Glen. Human labor would work, but would not be practical, because parts of the forest are overgrown and hard for people to access. And using chemicals to kill plants could have nasty side effects and would lead to chemical pollution runoff.

Thus, the goats. They come in once a year, get lots of attention from students, and clear parts of the Glen that can be replanted with native trees.

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The tree planting is something truly special, Hull said. Though he is an experienced tree planter and could make short work of placing a number of trees in freshly cleared ground, he prefers to have Towson students do the work. One day, he hopes graduates will return to campus with their children or grandchildren and point out trees they planted decades ago.

“If you have a student plant a tree, there’s a certain amount of ownership on it,” Hull said.

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