Goats feast on weed-ridden hillside in Polish Hill

Natasha Lindstrom
| Tuesday, July 8, 2014, 11:38 p.m.

The guests at an all-you-can-eat weed buffet drew double-takes from motorists and pedestrians on Tuesday along a vine-covered patch of hillside on Brereton Street in Polish Hill.

“You don't usually see that in the city,” said Sandeep Bedi, 35, of the Strip District, who parked his car to get a closer look at a herd of goats as they chowed down behind a 10,000-volt electric fence.

“I need one of those in my yard,” said Ellen Smith, 52, of Polish Hill.

The nonprofit Tree Pittsburgh brought the goats to the weed-ridden hill along West Penn Park as part of a restoration project. The goats spent hours eating some of the noxious plants, weeds and vines threatening the tree habitat to prepare for planting 110 nursery-raised trees at the site.

“I think it's fantastic,” said Lynn Miller, 62, a Penn State Master Gardener and 27-year Polish Hill resident. She said she has been urging civic leaders to do something about the overgrowth on the hillside for more than two decades.

The goats belong to Saxonburg farmer Erik Schwalm, who is considering putting some of his 130 meat and show goats to work as for-hire grazers. While passers-by snapped photos, Schwalm listened carefully as Brian Knox, owner of the Maryland-based Eco-Goats, explained how the process works.

“Herbicide is much cheaper,” Knox said, “but it has more downsides as far as soil contamination and collateral damage.”

Farmers have long used goats to help clear their own land, but the goat rental industry emerged in the Northeast only about eight years ago, Knox said. The eco-friendly service originated in the Southwest and in states such as California, Oregon and Washington, where goats are used to clear away brush for fire prevention.

Goats, which can eat up to 25 percent of their body weight in greens a day, make excellent landscapers for projects involving steep terrain and invasive plant species that can be dangerous to people. Poison ivy is one of their favorite snacks.

City Forester Lisa Ceoffe said goats “could be the solution to controlling many of our overgrown hillsides.”

“Left to grow with reckless abandon, those vines will take the trees down,” said Susan Beale, a Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture adviser from Jefferson County who's witnessed swaths of timbers killed by uncontrolled vines. “The trees can't get light for photosynthesis. It figuratively and literally strangles them out.”

Knox, whose goat landscaping business is booked six months out, says his goats can clear half an acre in two to four days. He takes his goats to jobs in the Philadelphia area, but he didn't want to take them on the four-hour trek to Pittsburgh.

“They're like kids,” he quipped. “They don't like to be in the car too long.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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