Hundreds of goats arrived this month in an annual grazing to help prevent wildfires in the hills outside Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
For 17 years, the lab and Goats R Us, an Orinda-based grazing company, have teamed up to manage vegetation in the East Bay and practice fire protection by releasing 500 goats onto 100 acres of land to eat brush. The goats are part of the lab’s wildfire prevention program focused on minimizing fire risks, said Tom Price, maintenance supervisor of facilities at the Berkeley lab.
The goats, or “eco-friendly lawn mowers,” are herded around the property’s enclosures over the course of one month — until the brush is reduced enough to make the possibility of a damaging fire significantly less likely.
“They work on a steep terrain that is extremely difficult and exhausting for human beings to work on,” Price said. “They do excellent work, and it’s almost impossible for humans to do the same work they’re doing with their everyday routine.”
The goats are constantly monitored and are only permitted to eat through about six inches of brush. Any more than that can cause soil erosion, Price said. In addition to brush, the goats have also been known to eat low-hanging leaves from trees, grass, blackberries and poison oak while they graze.
Using goats for grazing is becoming a popular practice due to poor vegetation management in the United States, said Lynn Huntsinger, a UC Berkeley professor of environmental science, policy and management. Goats are also more eco-friendly than a prescribed forest fire for cutting down vegetation, and it doesn’t hurt that people like them, Huntsinger said.
“People aren’t afraid of goats, so they’re quite popular,” Huntsinger said. “Parks and agencies want people to like what they’re doing. Goats are people-pleasers.”
Goats R Us was started by the Oyarzun family in 1995, with 54 goats, and has steadily grown to a population of 7,500. The company charges $800 on average per acre of land, but the price is usually determined by the size of the site and type of vegetation present.
According to co-owner Terri Oyarzun, all 500 goats are transported in one trip to the lab’s designated plot of land in what she refers to as a “goat limousine,” a large, decked livestock truck designed to make sure the goats are not cramped.
Huntsinger emphasized that while Goats R Us and the lab have worked together with goats for many years, cattle and sheep are also used to perform the same duties in East Bay parks such as Wildcat Canyon Regional Park and Briones Regional Park, where the land is flatter. But goats are less expensive to transport, she said, and they can sometimes tackle areas where cattle and sheep are less likely to reach, including hills.
“If it’s really steep, goats are the best,” Huntsinger said. “Goats are really funny little creatures; they love to climb.”