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Goats deployed to Underhill Preserve to control plant life

Goats used by the New York State DEC

Goats used by the New York State DEC to fight invasive species at the Underhill Preserve in Jericho feed on a variety of plants Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Credit: Barry Sloan

Off a busy stretch of the Jericho Turnpike near Route 106, there’s a chain-link fence that’s padlocked shut. Beyond that fence lies large swathes of grassland — just a third of a mile from the highway — where for the next couple months, a herd of goats is free to roam.

The animals are part of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s plan to combat invasive species like autumn olive, mugwort and Japanese honeysuckle that have overtaken much of the Underhill Preserve in Jericho and are crowding out native species in the area.

The critters are a much “greener” and cheaper alternative to pesticides or other means of clearing the unwelcome growth, DEC forester John Wernet explained as he seized a fistful of invasive mile-a-minute weed, a vine that can grow up to six inches a day, and fed it to a group of nearby goats.

Eight goats were brought to romp around six acres of dry grassland overgrown with invasive species. In the coming weeks, Wernet says he plans to add a few more to the herd, which will remain on the preserve until mid-October. The herd includes a few floppy-eared Nubian dairy goats, a couple short-legged Boer goats and earless Lamanchas.

Wernet calls the animals “equal-opportunity eaters,” whose hard mouths make it possible for them to munch on even thorny species on the preserve, like multiflora rose, as well as native species. And they devour not just the tops of plants but also the roots, which keeps the vegetation from regenerating, he said.

“With their voracious appetites, they can chew and mow their way through thickets of invasive species far better than mechanized equipment which allows native plants the opportunity to revegetate their former areas,” DEC Regional Director Carrie Meek Gallagher said of the goats that each typically eat three to five pounds of vegetation a day.

Underhill’s temporary tenants are “friendly and low-maintenance,” said Wernet, who visits the enclosure a couple times a week to check on the animals and supply them with water.

DEC rented the goats from upstate Rhinebeck-based Green Goats, a company that places the animals at parks and preserves to control “undesirable vegetation,” Green Goats owner Larry Cihanek said. Funding for the goats came from a $40,000 grant from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, a DEC spokeswoman said.

In 2014, the DEC brought in 10 goats that ate away at nearly six acres of invasive species at the Edgewood Oak Brush Plains Preserve in Deer Park.

Wernet’s hoping for similar results at the Underhill Preserve, which is home to 350 plant species and more than 100 species of birds, according to a 2013 survey funded by the Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society.

“There was once about 60,000 acres of grassland here. We’re hoping the goats can help us save what little we have left,” Wernet said.

The property isn’t currently accessible to the public, but is planned to be opened for public use in the coming years, a DEC spokeswoman said.

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