Get Used to Grazing Goats

These four-footed fire fighters protect the East Bay hills by grazing during the dry season.


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Photo by Paul Haggard

The moon was still out and the homes along Mastlands Drive were asleep when the move began. Oscar Espinoza made a trilling call and was answered with a chorus of bleats. Then a sound like a flowing stream cascaded down the steep hillside — hundreds of hooves trampling fallen oak leaves.

Goats.

Espinoza and six colleagues were moving a herd of 400 goats from a section of the Oakland hills near Montera Middle School to a brushy slope above the Shepherd’s Canyon soccer field.

Herds of goats like these have become a key tool in the fight to prevent wildfires — an increasingly urgent battle as climate change brings more frequent droughts and higher temperatures to California.

Thousands of goats browse the grassy, brushy Oakland hills each summer. These urban herds have become a familiar sight in the East Bay, a feature of the landscape as beloved by many local residents as views of Alcatraz or the Campanile.

There’s the initial wonder of glimpsing a herd of goats grazing just yards from busy Highway 24 or Interstate 580. There’s the repeated pleasure of passing goats on a routine drive to the supermarket or to work.

“The most enjoyable part of this job is bringing agriculture to the city,” said Robert McGrew, co-owner of EcoSystems Concepts in Dixon, which has brought goats to the East Bay since the early 1990s.

But these goats aren’t ambassadors for farm life or novelties in a petting zoo. They’re working goats, doing what goats do best, which is eat.

A herd of 400 goats can clear between 0.5 and 1.5 acres of potential wildfire fuel a day. They eat tall grasses and weeds, including poison oak and invasive French broom. Unlike sheep, they browse on brush and low-hanging tree branches as well as grass.

Goats can access steep slopes that are off-limits to mowing equipment. They’re also a bargain. It costs about $2,500 to have a human crew hand-clear an acre of brush, while goats can do it for $500, according to Vincent Crudele, supervisor of vegetation management for the Oakland Fire Department.

And if managed correctly, they’re better for sensitive ecosystems. Areas with rare plants can be fenced off. Grazing can be timed to let wildflowers blossom and seed. The herding companies use terms like “RDM” — residual dry matter — to set goals and metrics for their work.

“Used in the right way, with a plan for the timing and duration, grazing can have environmental benefits,” said Jim Hanson, East Bay conservation chair for the California Native Plant Society. “Goats have been used … for controlling certain types of invasive weeds that otherwise can out-compete everything else.”

Grazing wasn’t always seen as environmentally optimal.

“There was a time in the ’80s and ’90s when grazing was considered bad for ecosystems,” said Kristen Van Dam, an ecologist with the East Bay Regional Park District.

But then new research, including a study on grazing and vernal pools, showed it could have a positive effect.

And the Oakland hills firestorm of 1991 highlighted the danger of fire where homes abut wildlands — spurring public agencies including the City of Oakland to consider grazing.

Crudele, with the Oakland Fire Department, now reels off many instances where goats have helped prevent potentially disastrous fires.

“Just yesterday a stolen car was abandoned and torched on Skyline Drive,” he said in a July interview. “We’d done roadside clearance with hand crews, and goats grazed the area three weeks ago. Because the fuels had been brought down to ground level, the fire couldn’t travel up brush or trees. It bought us time [to put out the fire]. Had that fire occurred without grazing, we’d probably still be fighting it now.”

Organizations that hire goats for East Bay vegetation management include not just the city and the regional park district but the East Bay Municipal Utility District, Caltrans, PG&E, and the Contra Costa Water District.

The East Bay grazing season runs from April through October, paralleling the dry season. During winter, the goats are moved to Central Valley agricultural fields or Delta levees — contracts that bring in little or no money for herd owners but keep the goats fed.

Herd owners typically employ shepherds from Peru who come to the United States on special agricultural visas. They stay for three-year stints, living in well-equipped trailers alongside the grazing sites and earning more than 10 times what they would likely have earned at home. The isolation of traditional herding has been reduced somewhat by technology: Oscar Espinoza talks with his three children in Junin, Peru, from his trailer every day via Facetime.

The shepherds move the animals from site to site with the strategic deliberation of a battle plan. Managers estimate the size of an area, the kind of vegetation, and the number of goats to determine how long to graze them there.

Herds are contained by 12-volt electric fences, which are reconfigured almost daily as the goats move through an area. Each herd has a companion dog charged with scaring away coyotes, mountain lions, and the occasional human who isn’t deterred by the fence. The shepherds provide water and mineral salts, manage the fences, and keep an eye out for animals that are ailing.

When it’s time to move, the mellow pastoral scene becomes a buzz of activity.

For the Mastlands Drive herd, the shepherds had built a temporary plywood corral between the hillside and the street. Robert McGrew and several workers fought morning traffic to drive two large livestock trailers down from Dixon by 6:30 a.m.

With Espinoza’s calls and the help of two energetic border collies, they ushered the goats into the corral and then, in small batches, up a metal ramp into the trailers.

Ten minutes later, the process was reversed at Shepherd’s Canyon. Trailer doors opened and goats trotted down the ramp, then dashed across the neatly mowed soccer field for the tall grasses of the hillside.

“I wish we had 5,000 goats available to us,” Crudele said. “The only downside is not having enough.”

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