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Rescued goats now getting love — and lots of grub — on Friday Harbor Airport property
These were the pound puppies of ruminants. Once abandoned, abused, underfed, the herd is now living in goat heaven: Eating to their heart's content, lounging in the sun, pausing for a neck scratch from their caretaker, and serving an important purpose.
The 12 goats, owned by San Juan Island farmer Karen Lundin, are being used to clear Friday Harbor Airport property of noxious weeds.
The program is a test of the county Noxious Weed Control Program to see what non-native plants goats will eat, and how quickly. On Sunday, a 3,000-square-foot area was fenced off for the goats, on airport property near Skagit Valley College. The goats immediately went to work.
"The first thing they ate was the thistle," said Tom Schultz of the WSU Cooperative Extension. Joe Buckler, Lundin's partner, added, "It was dramatic — within hours." On Wednesday, the thistle was gone and the goats were munching on Scotch broom and a small willow. (The goats also get a mineral supplement and they each drink 2.5 to 3 gallons of water per day.)
Schultz said WSU and the Noxious Weed Control Program began talking about using goats to control noxious weeds about three years ago, "but it was an issue of having enough animals and personnel to manage a program." Lundin and Buckler, who operate a goat rescue on the island, resurrected the idea in spring.
The program serves a lot of purposes. For Lundin, it provides additional feeding areas for her goats. For the port district, it removes noxious weeds from airport property. And for WSU and the county Noxious Weed Control Program, it will prove goats' worth as a control of weeds such as Scotch broom, hawthorn and thistle, all of which cause problems for agriculture on the island.
It could also create a new business opportunity. Lundin is doing this one-month test without cost, but Port Executive Director Marilyn O'Connor said the port could save money or free up employees through a contract.
"It might be a possibility," O'Connor said. "We spend a lot of staff time pulling noxious weeds. It's part of grounds maintenance." If goats were employed to remove noxious weeds, grounds maintenance staff could spend more time on, well, grounds maintenance. "We have a lot to maintain up there," O'Connor said.
Goats are used elsewhere in Washington state for noxious weed removal. Rent a Ruminant, a Vashon Island farm, has goat herds for hire. Lundin calls her goats for hire "Grazin' Goaties." (She doesn't have a website. But you can reach her at 375-6332.)
Schultz said photos show that the airport property was once forested with mixed conifers and hardwoods. The property was logged for the airport in the 1950s, and over time noxious weeds started popping up like noxious weeds do, their seeds spread by animals, pedestrians, vehicle tires, and wind. Noxious weeds — plants that are not native to an area — overwhelm native plant communities and spread steadily year by year.
A trail developed by the San Juan Island Trails Committee passes by Lundin's goats, and Buckler is on site much of the day to supervise the goats and answer visitors' questions.
The goats are kept in place with a woven solar-powered electric fence. Outside the electric fence is an orange guard fence to keep people and dogs away from the electric fence. Trails in the area are being kept open throughout the experimental period. Walkers are asked to keep their dogs on leash while in the area.