A savory solution

Goats are helping Appleton Catholic cemetery control its invasive species of shrubs

APPLETON — Goats tend to get a bad rap in church traditions — with the devil often portrayed with goat horns and hoofs, and Jesus speaking of separating goats from sheep (Mt 25:41).

But at St. Mary Cemetery in Appleton, goats are getting positive reviews.

A goat chews on leaves from a buckthorn shrub that has overtaken St. Mary Catholic Cemetery’s riverbank. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

On July 8, five goats arrived in the cemetery from a Black Creek farm. They came to tackle the cemetery’s problem with buckthorn, an aggressive, invasive species of shrub that had overtaken the cemetery’s riverbank.

“We had been working, the last couple of years, to clean up the riverbank, to give a little better view of the river,” explained Brian Dresang, St. Mary Cemetery’s director. “We ran into an issue of buckthorn. Buckthorn will tear you apart if you get into it. We had a couple of trees down, or with branches down, and we wanted to get that cleaned up. And right under those trees is buckthorn. Obviously, that was trouble.”

The cemetery considered using herbicides to kill the buckthorn.

“Herbicide is quicker,” Dresang said, “but we thought it was better to do it naturally. We were afraid of killing off other things we didn’t want to kill off: lots of deer, turkeys, squirrels, chipmunks. We figured it would harm them, too. This is a definitely longer process but, in the long run, it’s a lot better.”

Cemetery officials also worried that the rain would carry the chemicals into the nearby river.

Goats consume buckthorn shrubs and other unwanted vegetation at St. Mary Catholic Cemetery in Appleton July 13. Twelve goats help rid the cemetery of the invasive species of shrub, thanks to a grant from the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region. (Brad Birkholz | For The Compass)

The solution came at the suggestion of landscaper Ron Wolff, who owns Lakeshore Cleaners in Appleton. Wolff was working with a property owner east of the cemetery and had suggested to them using goats to clear the pesky plants.

It turns out goats don’t hate buckthorn like humans do. In fact, as Wolff told Dresang, “‘Buckthorn is like hot apple pie to goats, it’s like their favorite thing.’”

Using goats for weed control is becoming popular around the country. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has used goats in places like Heritage Hill State Park in Green Bay and Governor Knowles State Forest along the St. Croix River in Burnett County. The Minnesota DNR, the Nebraska Department of Transportation and various fire departments in California have all turned to goats to clear weeds and brush. They’ve been used at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., since 2011.

The Sierra Club’s website notes that, “thanks to their voracious appetites — goats can eat up to 10 pounds of vegetation per day — and (with an) ability to navigate difficult terrain — the ravenous ruminants are on the front lines of fire prevention.”

St. Mary Cemetery got clearance from the Town of Grand Chute, then purchased and placed electric fencing to keep the goats from the cemetery’s hedges, roads and gravesites, and turned them loose. (Seven more goats were added on Aug. 2.)

“It’s amazing the amount they eat,” said Dresang. “They are about 3 feet high, but do they eat a lot of stuff. …Ron said they would make a big dent. … I didn’t believe him, but I have to admit, they eat a ton.”

The goats, which have made the cemetery’s ravine bridge their home base, have been welcomed by visitors, who come to see the little weed-eaters. Many people take photos and children love to watch them. One dad brings his four small sons almost daily. “We’ve come to see the goats — again,” he told Dresang on a recent visit.

Since the goats find their own food, the cemetery only needs to supply a source of fresh water each day. The goats will remain on-site until fall.

Funding to rent the goats came through an anonymous grant from a family fund within the Community Foundation for the Fox Valley Region. For several years, the same family’s fund has helped St. Mary Cemetery with upkeep, replanting large trees after a storm several years ago and repairs to their dump truck.

“Not a lot of cemeteries have a family foundation that wants to keep the cemetery beautiful,” Dresang noted. “A small cemetery like us loses money every year. The cemetery business is a hard business anyway. There is no way we would be able to do this without them.

“When we pitched the idea (of goats),” Dresang added, “(the family) loved it because of the more natural way of doing it and because they like creative, out-of-the-box thinking.”

Dresang estimates that the nine-acre cemetery has at least two acres of ravines and riverbank. So, if the goats don’t finish their work on the buckthorn this year, they’ll return in spring.