You’re listening to parks and landmarks, an exploration of the underrated, outdoors. I’m Sean Bull.
I hate invasive plants. I know this is not a big, revelatory statement to make. Most people are not, at least openly, pro-invasive species. But realistically, there are too many different kinds of invasives for everyone to care equally about them all at once. The invasive species a person cares about are probably those they encounter most regularly. The freshwater fisherman may complain most about zebra mussels, or asian carp. Those who live down south might have horror stories of kudzu vines or burmese pythons. And I, sheltered little midwest boy that I am, hate the Japanese Honeysuckle bush with a vitriol I reserve for little else.
This intolerance was instilled in me from a young age. Early in middle school, my class spent a weekend at a local youth camp. The trip coincided with what we were learning in science class, and as a bonus everyone got some exposure to the great outdoors. I’m sure that was the more impactful thing for a lot of kids. I think we learned how to build fires and paddle canoes, but honestly, I don’t remember any of that. Those activities were overshadowed by the stuff I was doing with the Boy Scouts around the same time.
The main thing I do remember from that trip was our practical lesson in invasive plants. We were taught to recognize common species, and learned why they were so bad for the ecosystem. Then we got to do our part in ridding southern Wisconsin of these pests. The counselor would tie a rope to the base of a large honeysuckle bush, and our little band of twelve-year-olds would play tug of war. It was a lesson in both ecology and teamwork. We may have been small, but get ten of us on a rope, and we could pull out huge bushes where the camp’s pickup truck would just slip in the mud.
Those one-sided games of tug-of-war lit a fire in me. Upon returning home, I noticed that invasive plants, especially honeysuckle bushes, were everywhere. Over the next decade, I cleared hundreds of them from my parents’ three acre yard, and I still feel I haven’t done enough. If I ever quit this show, it won’t be because I found more stable work as an actual paid journalist. More likely I’ll still be entirely unpaid, ripping up honeysuckle from the side of a country highway, and having the time of my life.
Perhaps, four hundred and fifty words into this rant, I should actually describe what I’m talking about. Japanese Honeysuckle is a bush with smallish, green oval leaves, and a woody stem. It was imported from east Asia as a decorative shrub, though I think this only proves that our ancestors had bad taste, and should not be revered by history. Honeysuckle is an ugly plant; it has neither the dignity of a tree, nor the delicate structure of a true ornamental bush. It does briefly grow flowers in the spring, wispy little yellow and white things that kind of look like tiny daffodils. But there are so many prettier flowering bushes. Its one benefit in landscaping is that the plant grows quickly, and grows just about anywhere.
Of course, this is exactly how it got out of hand. Nothing around here really eats honeysuckle, at least not enough to hinder its spread. You can cut it down to the ground, burn it to a crisp, but it will grow right back next year. The only way to truly get rid of honeysuckle is to pull up its roots, hence the kids v. plants tug of war games. But most people around here don’t have an army of children at their disposal, so honeysuckle spreads uncontested. It’s along roads, in peoples’ yards, and in every Wisconsin park you’ve ever visited. And everywhere it goes, it chokes out native plants, taking away food and shelter from animals that call our state home.
Well, mostly. Most grazers, Wisconsin’s deer included, recognize honeysuckle for the garbage tier plant that it is, but goats, famously, have no standards. If it’s green it’s on the menu, and for a city with a lot of green to clear, goats are a great asset, just waiting to be realized.
For the past two years, the city of Madison has leased herds of goats from a farm in Poynette. These goats work full time, and the parameters of their job are fairly simple. Their owner sets up a long electric fence, and the goats roam freely through the acres contained within. Over days and weeks, the herd slowly consumes all plant life within reach. Once they’ve sufficiently scoured the area, they pack up, and move on to their next job. For maximum efficacy, this process is repeated later in the summer. Just when the plants have used their reserve energy to regrow, the goats munch them down again, leaving the invasives depleted, and vulnerable to the coming winter.
The benefits of this approach are fairly obvious. The goats clear acres of parkland with no effort. Unlike human volunteers, they don’t get tired, or hungry, and don’t need to leave the site at the end of the day. They sleep right on site, and what few local predators might be interested in their kids are kept out by the same electric fence that keeps the goats in. Plus, they’re pretty safe in a group of fifty. The only help the goats need is someone to refill their water, and keep the fence in working order.
Human volunteers might be better suited to remove invasive plants in areas where you have to be discerning, where there are native plants that still must be preserved. But in a lot of cases, around madison, our woods are so choked with buckthorn, honeysuckle, and garlic mustard that there’s not really much worth saving. Such was the case at Acewood, one of two parks where the prescribed grazing program was first tested, in 2020.
Acewood is a neighborhood park on the east side of Madison, just south of cottage grove road. Its human visitors mostly come for the normal park stuff, which is all clustered on the park’s east side. Amidst a mowed field, it has a picnic shelter, playground and basketball court. Beyond these, a moderately sized pond, surrounded on three sides by tall grass. Along the west edge of the park, and the pond, are perhaps ten acres of woods.
Acewood Park is one of my wife’s favorites. When we were dating, we would ride our bikes along the bike path that runs behind the woods, then stop when we found a gap in the honeysuckle bushes. Someone had half blazed a trail, which wound from the path, over to a little point on the pond’s shore. On that point, a couple of Canada Geese had built a nest, and every summer, they would try unsuccessfully to hatch their eggs there.
The shore of the pond was great for bird watching. Even without binoculars, we could watch ducks, geese, cranes and herons, all going about their daily business on the water. This was maybe four years ago, but I remember thinking at the time: if I could just get rid of some of this undergrowth, this would be the best part of the park!
Now, I’m so glad I never made a trip out there with hedge trimmers. The goats’ job is far from over, but it’s amazing what they’ve cleared out in just a few summers. You can now walk freely beneath the trees. More importantly, the newly freed forest floor should allow the trees’ offspring to start growing in their place, something that would have been impossible just a few years ago.
The only other way to get results like this would either be a massive human effort, or a massive application of herbicide. Compared with either of those options, goats are both cheaper, and more environmentally friendly. Prescribed Grazing has proven effective, and in a few short years, the city has ramped up from a herd of forty goats in two parks, to two herds, rotating through eight different city properties. If you spend much time outdoors, there’s a good chance you could encounter the goats this summer. With that in mind, here’s a few ground rules for approaching them:
First, don’t touch or cross the electric fence. Of course, that’ll hurt. But more importantly, it’s their space. When I visited the goats to record sounds of them chewing, I was surprised to find they were kind of skittish. I’m so used to petting zoo goats, which aggressively beg for the smallest scraps of food. I kind of just assumed all goats were like that. These, evidently, are not. They’re professionals, and they have plenty of food right where they are. I guess what I’m saying is, treat the goats like you would any other parks employee. You can say hi, take pictures with them, but don’t get in the way of their work, or feed them from your hand. It’s better for everyone that way.
If you’d like to learn more about Prescribed Grazing, I’ll put some relevant links in the online version of this story. While you’re there, why not get in the comments, and suggest a topic for Parks and Landmarks to cover? Or you can email me, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell me about your favorite underrated spot outdoors, or whatever you feel is related. This segment’s title is intentionally broad, so just go for it. I’d love to hear from you guys. Again, that’s s-e-a-n dot b-u-l-l at w-o-r-t-f-m dot org. For WORT News, I’m Sean Bull.
Madison Parks: Land Management
Mid-West Farm Report: Goats Combat (Eat) Invasive Species
HaakHagen Goat Grazing, LLC: Before and After Pictures