After spending part of last summer eating its way through a 3-acre section of Thurmond, a former railroad boomtown in the New River Gorge that now boasts more weed-choked vacant lots than occupied buildings, a band of goats from New York has returned to chow down where they left off.
Last summer, the National Park Service arranged for Green Goats of Rhinebeck, New York, to bring 24 members of their herd to the New River Gorge National River, which includes most of Thurmond. The idea was to see if the animals can eat weeds as efficiently and effectively as NPS personnel operate weed-eaters and hand tools to clear kudzu and other forms of brush from Park Service property to reduce the threat of fire to the town’s historic buildings.
This year, only 10 goats are summering in the Gorge, but they will stay 90 days — nearly three times longer than the goats assigned here in 2018. They are dining at the same venue as last year — a 3-acre, fence-enclosed lot that includes an abandoned house. The lot produces an alarming volume of kudzu.
“We’re giving them a little assist in getting to the kudzu vines that are growing 50 feet up the trees,” said Brian Wender, the New River Gorge National River’s chief of natural resources management, after showing visitors the freshly sawed lower end of a kudzu vine that was several inches in diameter.
At least two other exotic, or non-native plants — multiflora rose and Japanese knotweed — are on the Thurmond goats’ menu.
“They love paper,” Wender said, after one of the goats took a hefty bite out of a legal pad. “About the only thing they won’t eat here is pokeweed.”
Kudzu was introduced to the U.S. from Japan during the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, where it was sold as an ornamental plant. As recently as the 1950s, it was distributed by federal soil conservation organizations to help farmers solve erosion problems.
The plant can grow up to one foot per day and produce vines more than 100 feet long, allowing it to cover homes and buildings, weigh down their roofs, and, when dry conditions persist, produce flammable layers of leaves and stems that fall from vines.
Goats will eat all the kudzu foliage they can reach, and repeat the process if new leaves and flowers form, stressing and weakening the plant until it dies.
“On our own, we would need a ton of herbicide to get rid of the kudzu here,” Wender said. “If we work with the goats, we could spot treat the vegetation they can’t get and save us from using a lot of chemical treatments.”
The New River Gorge National River has a three-year commitment to graze the goats and gauge their effectiveness and compare their costs to herbicide application and other human weed removal techniques.
Meanwhile, the Thurmond goats are provided clean water, given twice daily wellness checks, and have a veterinarian on call should any health issues arise. Their owner visits monthly to gauge their well-being and determine how much longer the food supply will last in their steep, 3-acre grazing range.
Morning and late afternoon are the best times for visitors to catch views of the Thurmond goats at work, according to Wender.
One goat not among this year’s returning group is Buckles, a 4-year-old male adopted from West Virginia during last year’s Gorge grazing period.
According to Green Goats’ Facebook page, the West Virginia goat is spending his summer in Manhattan, New York, as part of another grazing crew at work clearing weeds from Riverside Park, a narrow, 4-mile long greenway along the Hudson River on the Upper West Side.