Goats go green by eating invasive plants and vines in Towson area

Jack was in goat heaven Oct. 7. He was up on his hind legs, happily eating the leaves off invasive vines in a wooded area near Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.'s East Towson substation at East Pennsylvania and Railroad avenues.

"We call this goat ballet," said Jack's owner, Veronica Cassilly, of Harmony Church Farms in Darlington in Harford County.


Jack was one of 19 goats, all members of Cassilly's "Harmony Herd," who helped clear the future site of Adelaide Bentley Park by grazing there.

"Our job is to save the trees," Cassilly said. "The goats eat all the brush. They eat the leaves off the vines so we can find the vines at the bottom of the trees," and uproot them.

Sophie Nasrallah, 17, a St. Paul's School for Girls senior from Lutherville, works with goats to clear porcelain vine, an invasive species, from an area of the school's campus in Brooklandville on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015. Nasrallah brought the goats to campus from Harmony Church Farm in Darlington as part of a three-year project under the school's Scholars Program.
Sophie Nasrallah, 17, a St. Paul's School for Girls senior from Lutherville, works with goats to clear porcelain vine, an invasive species, from an area of the school's campus in Brooklandville on Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015. Nasrallah brought the goats to campus from Harmony Church Farm in Darlington as part of a three-year project under the school's Scholars Program. (Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Cassilly, 51, has lived on her farm for 20 years and has owned goats for the past four years. She first brought them in to clean up her overgrown, 12-acre property.

"It was in really bad shape," she said. "The vines were pulling the trees over."

Now, Cassilly, who was born in Havre de Grace and grew up in Bel Air, brings her traveling goats in a trailer to schools, environmental groups and governments that hire her to help restore forested areas in the region to their natural habitats, free of unwanted brush and vines that can suffocate trees and deny them sunlight. She charges fees ranging from $350 to $5,000 depending on the size of the lot and how much work needs to be done.

The goats have been everywhere from Bel Air's Rockfield Park to the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center in downtown Baltimore, and have done work for the Maryland Department of the Environment, Cassilly said. On Oct. 7, she and her assistant, Ethan Godfrey, set up a portable, solar-powered electric fence as a pen to keep the goats from wandering off the half-acre wooded BGE property in Towson and into the neighborhood.

Goat owner Veronica Cassilly brought her goats to Rockfield Park to help eliminate invasive plants on the grounds. (Matt Button, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

"People have been using goats to clean areas for hundreds of years," Cassilly said. "It's not a new idea."

She said the goats graze for up to eight hours a day.

"They can eat more than pretty much any other vegetarian," she said, adding that she leaves them pretty much to their own devices, except for picking up broken glass and bottles in the woods. She doesn't pick up their poop, because it's good fertilizer..

Residents whose houses back up to the woods didn't seem to mind that goats were in the area for several days last week.

"The first day, it was like a petting zoo," as families gathered in the woods to meet Jack and his friends, including Olive, Elmer and Leroy, Cassilly said.

"I thought it was great," said Jimica Darby, noting that her 6-year-old daughter, Aaliyah, quickly bonded with Jack. If Darby was worried about anything, it wasn't the goats, but the potential effect of the planned park on the neighborhood.

"That's going to be a lot of foot traffic through our neighborhood," she said.

Towson University has recruited a herd of goats from Harford County to try an environmentally friendly way of removing invasive English ivy on campus.

Have herd, will travel

Cassilly and her goats have been busy in Baltimore County lately. They've grazed in an arboretum at Towson University and helped the environmental group NeighborSpace of Baltimore County clear the land for the park. On Sunday, the goats traipsed through the woods near the St. Paul School for Girls, as part of a school project by senior Sophie Nasrallah, of Lutherville. It was a return engagement for the goats, who visited St. Paul last November.

"It's like plant-zilla," Nasrallah, 17, said at school earlier last week, describing how difficult it was to pull up invasive porcelain vines by hand.

"We've been trying to clear that property for a very long time," said Barbara Hopkins, executive director of NeighborSpace, which helps local groups and neighbors protect and improve open space for parks, gardens and trails. NeighborSpace used volunteers from the Jones Falls ward of the Church of Latter Day Saints to pull out tree limbs and other large debris. But when it came to the small stuff, NeighborSpace turned to Cassilly and her Harmony Herd, and got BGE's blessing to bring in the goats.

The goats make quicker work of it, and, "it's a lot more (environmentally) sustainable," Hopkins said. "Goats aren't in there burning gasoline."

Nasrallah has also been using the goats and their feces for her ongoing school project to test the potential of invasive vines as a sustainable, alternative energy source, with the idea of putting them to good use, rather than simply pulling them up and throwing them away.

When visitors to the Robert Paul Academy of Cosmetology Arts & Sciences enter the expansive beauty school off Timonium Road, they see students styling hair of all colors ¿ including teal, lavender and pink.

She began doing the three-year independent study project as part of the school's prestigious Scholars Program, after her former biology teacher took students outside to show them a tree covered in vines, and told them, "Someone needs to do something about this."

Nasrallah and a partner harvested a 5.22-kilogram bag of vines by hand and fashioned a homemade calorimeter out of a soup can to burn porcelain vines that grow on campus and measure how much heat they contain. They concluded that the plant could theoretically create enough energy to power a 100-watt light bulb for about 19 days.

A big problem, however, was that it took her an hour to pull enough vines for her experiments, so she began using goats last year.

"Goats have a lot more fun pulling vines," she said.

The project has won several accolades, including receiving an honorable mention at the Baltimore Science Fair and being named a national finalist in the Siemens Foundation's "We Can Change the World Challenge," a science competition.

Now, Nasrallah is burning privet hedge and goat feces, too, to determine what would make the best energy source.

"What I get out of (the project) is how to science and help the world. 'Science' should be a verb," said Nasrallah, whose father, Dr. David Nasrallah, is chief of the division of general surgery at Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore City.

Jim Hull, professor emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences at Towson University, has also used the Harmony Herd goats. Hull runs the university's arboretum, which he said is about 10 acres and contains 96 of the 125 tree species that are native to Maryland. But he said it has had several problems, including deer killing four of the species. But he said invasive English ivy and grapevines are an even bigger problem.

He found out about the goats from Cassilly, who taught a class on environmental biology at Towson University last year, and has brought in the goats twice since last year, with mixed success.

Hull said his sense is that the goats don't much like the taste of the ivy and are better at eating it from the tree canopy than they are at eating ivy on the ground. But he said the goats did a more effective job of eating plants and flowers, including multiflora roses — "thorns and all"— that covered up grapevines, and that allowed him and student workers to gain access to the vines to dig them up. The goats ate their way through three-quarters of an acre in nine days earlier this year, he said.

Hull said it was less expensive to use the goats this year, for a fee of $2,500, than it would have been to use weed whackers or other equipment.

"And the goats had more cachet," he said, citing their popularity with students on campus.

Maddie Smith wears several hats. She is a student in the magnet program for law and public policy at Towson High School. She is princess at Crescent Yacht Club in Middle River/Essex. She is a concierge at The Maples of Towson, an assisted living community. And, this year, thanks to her interest in Alzheimer's disease, she is Youth Ambassador in the Greater Baltimore Walk to End Alzheimer's later this month.

Eat and run


For NeighborSpace, the goats are allies in its effort to build Adelaide Bentley Park, which was named in 2013 for the longtime East Towson community activist, whose house borders the site. Community benefit funding provided by the Towson Mews development is partly paying for the project.

Now that the goats are finished on the Railroad Avenue site, students from Morgan State University's graduate Program in Landscape Architecture will participate in a contest to design the park. NeighborSpace and the Northeast Towson Community Association will evaluate the student designs next winter and award a $400 prize to the student or student team with the winning design, Hopkins said.

For Cassilly, the traveling herd is a chance to help the environment by separating the proverbial wheat from the chaff.

"Not all green is good," she said.

As winter approaches, the goats will go back to their farm for a well-deserved rest from their travels to far-flung forests — and Cassilly will get back to tending her farm.

But come spring, they'll be eager to go back to grazing in far-flung forests.

"They don't really like getting on the trailer," Cassilly said. "But once they get here, they're very happy."

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