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Goats munch away on weeds

If you hear bleating coming from the area near Mark Twain or Meredith Hill elementary schools over the weekend, you aren't imagining things.

Nearly 300 goats have taken up residence on the two campuses to clear weeds, blackberry bushes, Scotch Broom and other invasive plants.

In less than a week, the goats will clear most of the overgrown brush on steep terrain, making it easier for Federal Way School District grounds crews to later come in and clean up the area.

Using goats to clear the area is cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than hiring crews with heavy equipment to do the work, said district spokeswoman Deb Stenberg.

The district won't have to use chemicals or haul loads of yard waste to landfills. And the rough terrain — a delight for the goats to work in — is treacherous for people.

"You get them into a lot like that, that's steep and it has blackberries covering it, it's just difficult, nasty work," Stenberg said. "We have a piece of equipment that's a mower and it won't even work on these hillsides."

Goats have recently gained popularity in King County for their ability to clear brush. They've been used by various King County companies and government agencies, including Metro and Seattle City Light.

"Overall, it sounds like neighbors generally enjoy having the goats nearby," Stenberg said. "They're kid-friendly and people-friendly."

Greg Madsen, the Eastern Washington rancher the district hired to bring the goats, said he welcomes neighbors and children to stop by and take a look at the animals. He asks that dogs be kept on leashes.

The goats are friendly, Madsen said.

"The goats are not mean to people. Usually it's the other way around," he said. "Usually, I'm more worried about the public being mean to them."

Goats will eat just about anything that looks like a plant, but there are a few varieties that are poisonous, so Madsen checked the area before releasing the goats.

The goats may be mildly smelly for a few days, Madsen said.

"The main odor will be kind of an ammonia smell from the urine and stuff, but that disappears quickly — in a few days," he said.

The poop that the goats leave behind will quickly be composted into the ground, he said, noting that goats poop small pellets compared to cows or horses.

Other than a few cries of "maaa," the goats were pretty quiet after their arrival Wednesday afternoon. They were too preoccupied with eating to make much noise, Madsen said.

The goats will finish eating a half-acre of blackberry bushes and invasive weeds at Mark Twain sometime on Saturday before heading to Meredith Hill Elementary, where they will clear one-and-a-half acres.

Madsen plans to have both areas clear sometime on Monday.

Each goat will eat about 3 percent of its body weight per day, Madsen said. The goats range from the size of an average dog to the size of a pony. Most will eat about four to six pounds per day in brush — the equivalent of 20 quarter-pound cheeseburgers.

There's no need to worry about the goats overeating wild vegetation, Madsen said. When they get full, they will lay down and rest. At home, Madsen feeds his goats hay and alfalfa while giving them free reign of the pasture.

Madsen will stay on the property 24 hours per day, supervising the goats' progress and ensuring they're safe from wildlife or people.

Stenberg said if things go well at the Mark Twain and Meredith Hill sites, the district is likely to hire Madsen to clear more campuses.

"This is really going to be a test run for us to see how well they're going to do," she said. "They may have more work from the district. There are a lot of blackberries and invasive weeds."

‘They're fun animals’

Madsen, a former range management specialist for the federal Natural Resource Conservation Service, said he got the idea to use goats for brush-clearing six years ago after hearing about a similar system in California.

Although the goats don't all have names, they do have numbers. Madsen said that he has a special attachment to the first few he bought, but it's tough to view all 270 as pets.

"They're fun animals. I don't know if I'd say I love them," he said. "I don't want to see them get hurt or anything. I try to take good care of them."

Madsen said he won't bring his goats out to clear any less than an acre-and-a-half. For folks who like the idea of purchasing a goat to do some yardwork, Madsen suggests getting two.

"Otherwise they're gonna follow you around," he said. "They don't like to be alone."

For people in rural areas, it's a good idea to have a dog to protect the goats from coyotes and other wildlife.

Goats can make good pets, Madsen added.

"They're pretty friendly. Goats are interesting. They do have more personality than sheep," he said. "They are very curious."

In Federal Way city limits, a person must have at least 70,000 square feet of property to lawfully own large domestic animals such as goats, said Becky Lemke, code compliance officer. A person with 70,000 square feet is allowed two large domestic animals. The law allows for one more large animal for each additional 35,000 square feet.

Before hiring a crew of goats to clear brush, it would be a good idea to check with the city, Lemke said.

Contact Margo Horner: mhorner@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

For more information about using goats for natural vegetation management, visit www.healinghooves.com

View the goats

Greg Madsen welcomes visitors to view the 270 goats at work. He asks that all dogs be kept on leashes.

The goats will be at Mark Twain Elementary, 2450 South Star Lake Road, early on Saturday. Later that day, the goats will move to Meredith Hill Elementary, 5830 South 300th Street, where they will remain through Monday. The exact time the goats transfer locations will depend on their progress.

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