Two days before the start of the Tea Fire, the Mission Canyon Association had shipped in around 50 goats to munch away at the chaparral, dry leaves, and other fuel that has been accumulating where their oak-populated neighborhood meets the surrounding foothills. After much study, the association contracted with Brush Goats 4 Hire, which has officially been in business for about a year.
The goats are all colors and sizes, from tiny Spanish goats weighing less than 40 pounds to 200-pound crosses of the Boer and Kiko breeds. Their home base is a large ranch in the Buellton-Gaviota area. Proprietors Ian Newsam and Lorraine Argo packed them up and moved them out of Mission Canyon Thursday night, November 14, just in case winds drove the fire over the hill from Sycamore Canyon.
Mission Canyon has long been a focus of anxiety for firefighters and residents alike as a result of the potential for a wildfire roaring through the area’s mature native foliage, shake shingles, and narrow, winding streets with little opportunity for residents to escape. The Mission Canyon Association hired Brush Goats to create a buffer between the neighborhood and the chaparral wilderness.
The association also considered hiring human crews, but goats - an increasingly popular option for this kind of work - are substantially less expensive, Newsam said. Depending mostly on terrain, and water availability, their services cost $400 to $1,000 per acre.
Amid media fanfare that included a video crew from Santa Barbara Middle School, the 50 goats returned on Wednesday, November 19, and got to work immediately on a 2.5-acre swatch of scrub immediately to the right of the Tunnel Trailhead. Newsam reckoned it would take them about five days to finish the job there, after which they will tackle the steep, densely vegetated chaparral hillside on the other side of the trail. The goats are presently contracted to complete four segments in all - followed, possibly, by several others that the association has targeted for clearance.
The herd is enclosed behind solar-powered electrical fencing, and guarded by two large dogs - a seasoned Great Pyrenees and an adolescent Anatolian shepherd dog. The Santa Barbara Fire Department’s Capt. David Neels is donating the service of keeping the goats’ water tank filled.
It’s thirsty work. True to their omnivorous reputation, the goats will eat all the foliage to a height of five feet, which is as high as they can reach standing on their hind hooves. “Poison oak is no problem,” Newsam said. They will even clean the dry leaves from the ground. Argo claimed that the goats will not tear live branches from the trees, though. If they had unlimited acreage in which to roam, they would nibble here and there in a manner not so useful for fire prevention, but enclosed as they are, they will clear the area thoroughly.
“The beauty of the program,” said Brush Goats 4 Hire associate Pam Meyer, “is that the dogs and goats are doing exactly what they would choose to do if they could do anything.” To which Newsam added, “Every hour is lunch hour.” However, not all is idyllic in goat land. If they sense weakness in one of their members, said Newsom, whose other job is as a research analyst for Pacific Capital Bancorp, they will beat him or her up. Consequently, the goats hide their injuries and frailties. “So, they’re interesting,” Newsam concluded.
They sure are, but ask this reporter and she’ll tell you that they’re something else, too: incredibly cute.