Goats give Towson University a lesson in weed control

The Baltimore Sun
Ivy gets the goats on Towson University campus.

Towson University has recruited a herd of new groundskeepers to put the bite on a pesky weed problem on the suburban campus.

Hauled in from a Harford County farm, 18 goats began munching away Sunday on a patch of English ivy covering the forest floor in the school's Glen Arboretum. They didn't stop there, though, grazing on almost everything in reach, including fallen leaves, dead vines and even tree bark.

"It's environmentally safe, and it's effective — I hope," said James Hull, a plant ecologist and emeritus biology professor who is overseeing the ivy removal project.

People have been using goats for years to get rid of weeds. It's a first for Towson, but Hull said "biological" control of the stubborn ivy seemed the right choice for the Glen, a mostly wooded 12-acre tract bordering a stream in the heart of campus that's been designated an arboretum. It currently harbors 94 of the 120 tree species native to Maryland.

"My dream is to have all native (plants)," said Hull, 68, "and to get all the invasives out."

Though still planted by some, English ivy is now widely considered a pest, because it can entomb trees in vines and smother all other ground vegetation. Hull said the ivy has to go if the arboretum's native trees and shrubs are to survive.

With grants from Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and PepsiCo, Hull hired five students last year who recruited hundreds of volunteers to begin clearing ivy from a portion of the arboretum. It's mostly been removed from the trees, but the ground-hugging vines have proved more difficult. Students trying to yank them up ran into flak from yellow jackets angry over having their subterranean nests disturbed. After a couple got stung, Hull said he decided to look for alternatives.

He ruled out herbicides, in part to avoid any risk of contaminating the nearby stream. But he said he also doubted the chemicals could effectively penetrate the waxy coating on ivy leaves.

He decided to try goats after reading a study from Portland, Ore., which found one "application" of the animals removed four-fifths of the ivy in a test plot, and 98 percent after two tries.

"It's what I call an iterative process," Hull said. "You have to keep coming back again and again."

So, for $1,500, Hull hired Jack, Ginger, Leroy and the rest of the goats from Harmony Church Farm in Darlington to spend five days chowing down on campus. They're feeding on a quarter-acre patch of ivy, fenced in with mildly electrified wire to keep the animals from roaming. Hull also put cages around several recently planted tree seedlings, to shield their tender branches from the voracious animals.

Their owner, Veronica "Roni" Cassilly, said she originally got the goats to take care of invasive plants on her 10-acre farm, but now rents them out for jobs like this. They follow her as she walks through the woods, perhaps hoping she'll dole out some of their favorite snack — peanuts — which she carries with her.

"Our forests are really in terrible shape," she said, choked by a variety of exotic, invasive vines. And though English ivy is poisonous to humans, she said goats eat it without apparent problems.

Leroy, however, may have consumed something Sunday that didn't agree with him, because he became wobbly on his feet. Cassilly led him back to her trailer to look after him. Some other goats tried to follow, and one bleated several times before they all settled down to browse some more or digest their brunch.

Meanwhile, the goats drew a trickle of visitors, including Aaron Ziegel, an assistant professor of music history, his wife, Audra, and their delighted 2-year-old son, Julian.

"He loves goats," explained Julian's mother, as he patted one. She pronounced them "a good, environmentally friendly solution" to the university's ivy infestation.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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