Goats to the rescue: Omnivorous animals may be the answer to restoring Murrysville tree sign

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Eighty years ago, a troop of Boy Scouts planted 800 pine trees, spelling out the town name – M U R R Y S V I L L E -- high on a steep high hillside overlooking Route 22.

Without using GPS technology, the Scouts located each tree using semaphore signals from a neighboring hilltop. It took them four years to plant the trees, and without even knowing it, they had created the world’s largest arboreal sign. For decades, the sign has given pride to the community and stood as an unparalleled coniferous landmark.

The tree sign still stands high on the hillside. It has been replanted a few times, most recently in the 1980s.

Today, the trees are 30 to 40 feet high. As time passes by, the tree letters are growing together, becoming less distinctive. The hillside also has grown thick with the usual culprits: poison ivy, vines, invasive shrubs and small trees. The responsibility to maintain it rests with the municipality. And it has proven to be a challenge.

Jim Morrison, chief administrator in Murrysville, has been looking into how to maintain the site and who can do the job.

“We are having a hard time finding someone to tackle the clearing the hillside,” he told council at last month’s meeting. “Not too many landscapers want to take it on. “

Morrison also ruled out using volunteers because of the potential liability of someone getting hurt on the steep slope. During Mr. Morrison’s report, councilman David Perry suggested using goats to clear out the undergrowth. Everybody laughed.

“No really, you can rent the goats," Mr. Perry said. “You set them in one area and they devour everything. Then you move them.”

Everyone laughed.

Which is exactly what people do when Brian Knox tells them about his grazing goats.

“They laugh,” he said. "I think, because we are using a very old technology to make a hard job easy. It is so simple and entertaining.”

Mr. Knox, is the supervising forester for Eco-Goats of Annapolis, Md. He is one of about five goat farmers in the eastern United States whose goats can be hired to clear unwanted vegetation.

“They love poison ivy and they browse on a wide range of vegetation. They particularly like woody shrubs.”

When told of the Murrysville tree sign, Mr. Knox was confident the goats wouldn’t even notice the challenges.

“Goats excel on sites like that where it is difficult for people to get machinery in. They are agile, have great balance and their hoofs are made for rugged terrain.”

According to Larry Cihanek, owner of Green Goats of Rhinebeck, N.Y., the goats would be right at home.

“The steep hillside would be the easiest part of the equation. It’s all the same to a goat. It is easier than walking up stairs,” he said. “There are three parts to any project we do. How many goats will it take? How do we fence them in? And how much oversight will it take? They will eat poison ivy, phragmites, Japanese knotwood, kudzu, porcelain berry vines, thistle, thorn bush, bittersweet, ailanthus and just about every unwanted or invasive weed know to man.”

According to Mr. Cihanek, the length of time it takes the goats to clear a given property depends on a variety of factors, such as how many goats are used, the type and density of vegetation.

Both goat men attest to the good nature of goats, saying the goats are gregarious and friendly.

“The herd is really interesting, kind of like high school. You have the pretty girls, the popular ones and the loners. All my bad goat stories are about one goat, not a herd. It’s when a goat runs out of food, that he gets in trouble. ” Mr. Knox  said. “They do climb trees though. I had one that I watched climb a tree and got stuck about 25 feet up. She got back down and then climbed up again. “

“They are like dogs with hooves,” Mr. Cihanek said. “When I walk in the woods, they’ll walk in a line right behind me. If a goat gets out of line, you call his name and he’ll respond. They are herd animals.”

In addition to the simple entertainment of goats doing what they do naturally, there are significant environmental benefits of this type of sustainable maintenance. Goats have triangular shaped mouths and crush seeds rather than swallow them whole as they chew. Therefore very little of the recycled material regrows after it is eliminated by the goats.

According to the Green Goats website, use of grazing goats in parks is 50 percent to 75 percent more cost effective than conventional gas-powered methods. Parks also report a 20 percent increase in attendance due to people who want to see the goats at work.

Mr. Knox and Mr. Cihanek feel the tree sign project was feasible. 

A week after the discussion at the council meeting, Mr. Morrison was not ready to commit to putting a goat herd on the job.

“We are not at that point yet. We are still exploring options,” he explained. “First and foremost, who would house and feed them? I don’t think the municipality is willing to maintain a herd of goats.”

When told that farmers like Mr. Knox and Mr. Cihanek can bring goats in for hire, Mr. Morrison appeared to be open to the idea. Subsequently, he has contacted one of the farmers to further explore the concept. Mr. Morrison may get his goat yet.

Tim Means, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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