Imagine a big herd of goats browsing in a coastal prairie that borders the Pacific Ocean. The dramatically gorgeous, memorable sight could seem peaceful — except for the many hundreds of vehicles driving right past that meadow every summery day, heading to or from Big Sur on busy Highway 1.
The view along that route often includes animals — hundreds or thousands of massive elephant seals on the shore (depending on the season), dozens of zebras and cattle on Hearst Ranch, even a few cowboys on horseback.
It’s a project to control invasive weeds on a 20-acre strip of Caltrans right of way, a strip that’s part of a complicated delineation of property that includes Highway 1, Hearst San Simeon State Park and the massive Hearst Ranch. A previous Caltrans project moved a stretch of Highway 1 there farther inland in 2017 to prevent further roadway erosion caused by ocean wave action and the potential of rising sea level.
Eliminating invasive species via goat power
The approximately three-week, weed-control project will help restore the native habitat on the coastal prairie and coastal prairie wetland, according to Katherine Brown, landscape architect for Caltrans District 5.
The areas impacted during the highway relocation project were reseeded with native species, but this season’s heavy carpet of greenery included many volunteer plants of invasive bur clover, mustard and thistle.
With the heavy rains earlier this year, those weeds spread rapidly.
Brown said, in one of a series of phone interviews, that she expects this visit by the goats will be the first “of three grazing efforts at the same site,” with the second one next spring, “before the plants set seed,” and another later that year or in 2021.
Estimated cost for the Living Systems Land Management project is about $20,000, but the final cost won’t be known until the work is complete.
Living Systems is a subcontractor of Empire Landscaping of Davis.
Brown said grazing goats to remove the weeds on the site is better for the environment than widespread use of herbicides such as glyphosate, which Caltrans has used in spot locations, but not overall.
Weed control by goat is an “out-of-the-box approach for Caltrans,” she said. “We’re hoping it will become more of a standard practice.”
Goats eat 1 acre per day
Out-of-the-box, but not unique: A couple of years ago, a goat herd chewed away the weeds under the Highway 46 Estrella Bridge. Brown said that job didn’t get much attention because the herd was mostly “out of sight for the general public,” unlike at the Piedras project, where the critters are front and center.
Using goats for weed control has been a topic of discussion at several North Coast meetings, including the Cambria Community Services District and the Cambria Fire Safe Focus Group. At the latter’s March 13 meeting, Cambria physician Gerry Main urged Cal Fire, CCSD and other agencies to seriously consider using goats to help remove invasive weeds that dry in the summer and turn into tinder for wildfires.
CCSD has used a goat herd for weed control before, according to Carlos Mendoza, supervisor of the district’s resources and facilities. He said the project produced mixed results, in part because the goats ate almost everything, including native species.
The 300 Boer cross goats were transported in two double-decker trucks from Fremont to the 20-acre site north of Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, Brown said. The hungry, thirsty critters hit the ground munching, getting a juicy side benefit because the plants had been dampened thoroughly by the heavy fog. They continued to eat later than usual, dining under a full moon.
The goats are confined to selected grazing areas by temporary fencing that’s moved every few days. The goats were to graze at a rate of approximately 1 acre per day.
About 100 more goats were expected to be added to the herd on Wednesday.
Young shepherdess ‘does it all’
Young shepherdess Margarita “Maggie” Aceves and her 17-year-old nephew Theodore Moreno are carrying on a family tradition of animal herding. She was trained by her elder brother Armando Aceves, who is Living Systems’ foreman. Now she’s training Theodore.
The two are there 24 hours, seven days a week, doing it all, checking the herd every 15 or 30 minutes. It’s hard work, physically challenging enough so neither Aceves or Moreno should need any bicep exercises in the near future.
“Maggie lugs the fencing on her back, drags hoses, carries water, manages the water pump,” an impressed Brown said. “She does it all,” although Aceves said with a giggle that she sometimes foists some of the strong-back work onto her nephew.
The shepherds can’t even leave the site to get food or go grocery shopping, Brown said, so the Aceves family shops in Coalinga and brings bags of supplies to the shepherds and her 5-year-old herding dog, Patsy.
Aceves and Moreno relocate and secure in the hardscrabble ground the low-voltage electric fence that keeps the goats in and (hopefully) the predators out. “That takes a lot of hammering,” Aceves said.
The shepherdess said, “if the goats hear another animal, they’ll stay still, lay down next to the water.”
Among the potential dangers are mountain lions, coyotes, wolves, foxes, rattlesnakes, gopher snakes, even wild boar and, unfortunately, humans. So far, the only damage has been when somebody cut the fence.
Young Moreno spotted the cut, “and no goats got out,” Aceves said.
Fortunately, that’s the exception, according to Brown. Most people who stop at the site “are so excited to see the goats, and to learn that using them means we’re using less herbicide.”
Aceves is in her first year as a shepherdess, but so far, she loves the work. During the pauses between goat checks, she has plenty to do, because she’s pursuing three separate career tracks in her community college studies: Math and science, art and a nursing program.
“I like learning new things,” the bilingual Dreamer student said.
In her “spare” time, she paints, draws, works with clay, reads and even watches movies in her little camper. The young woman speaks about her goats with great affection, talking excitedly about helping the moms give birth. The “baby goats are so cute, they look like toys, like stuffed teddy bears,” she said.
Many of the goats at Piedras are nursing moms or pregnant. So, Aceves has had some rudimentary veterinary training, just in case, and in situations she can’t handle, there’s a vet on call.
“It’s a great group,” Brown said. “A lot of respectful teamwork, and the icing on the cake is getting Maggie on the project.”
Brown said Living System’s owners Jan and Mike Canaday are equally awesome, and there’s a biological monitor on site every day.
“I’m very happy with the outcome so far,” she said.
Aceves said, “This is my first time working with animals and dogs,” because she had severe allergies as a child. “Now that I’m older, there are medications I can take.”
She said with a determined laugh that some people “tried to tell me I couldn’t be a shepherd and do the work because I’m a girl.”
Aceves is proving them wrong.