He almost didn’t see them at first.
A crowd of people standing along his usually clear jogging route up Eastern Avenue, straddling the District-Maryland border, tipped him off that something was up. Following their gaze into a small clearing of overgrown trees and wild flora, he saw something move.
“I thought it was a deer at first, to be honest,” said Spencer Douglas, 33, a financial analyst who lives in Mount Rainier, Md. “It took me a minute to be like, ‘Nah, that’s a goat.’ ”
A herd, to be precise.
Nine goats from a farm in Centreville, Md., took up residence this week on a plot of land in Mount Rainier, where they have been eating poison ivy, honeysuckle and other overgrown plants since Monday afternoon.
But these aren’t just any goats. They’re professional goats. And they’re in high demand.
Eco-Goats, which offers its services to clear invasive species, overgrown brush and difficult-to-handle plants such as poison ivy, poison oak and brambles, has been in business for about 10 years. Owner Brian Knox said he’s recently gotten pickier about what contracts the goats will or won’t take.
The Maryland company’s most recent job in Mount Rainier, clearing a parcel of city land neglected since the turn of the century, is the latest in a line of gigs around the Washington area that are part of a national push toward greener solutions and natural methods of clearing land.
Knox said he prefers to work with cities, counties and school districts — anywhere there’s an opportunity to engage with children and community members, where the goats can show off all they can do.
“We used to do an exercise where you have one person wander through the woods with a pair of clippers and a bag and try to see if they can collect what a goat will typically eat in a day — that’s about 20 pounds of leaves — and it doesn’t add up as quickly as you’d think,” he said.
Goats have been used to clear foliage for centuries, but in recent years, the age-old method has become new again. Goats have been called to clear land near airports, schools, the Anacostia watershed, the District’s Congressional Cemetery, fire-prone ranches and private residences.
Eco-Goats used to deploy crews of up to 140 animals per job. But, Knox said, he’s learned that smaller is better, and he pared down the number of working goats to about 20, depending on the property’s size.
Goats come with benefits that crews of humans do not: They fertilize the land as they go, they’re relatively quiet, and they work night and day. Plus, Knox added, they’re fun to watch.
“Goats are really fascinating animals. They’re much more captivating than sheep or cows or horses, I think,” he said. “They’re kind of mesmerizing. It’s a lot like watching fish. You can waste a lot of time watching fish, and you can waste a lot of time watching goats.”
Though goats do not dig up roots of weeds or plants like poison ivy, they do pick off the leaves and destroy seeds, which can sometimes be spread when people clear foliage with methods such as mowing.
Once the goats have had their fill and the area has been cleared, Knox said, a crew of human workers will finish the job, pulling up roots and cutting away the bits of plants goats leave behind, like sticks and stems.
It’s hard to say when the animals will be done — they run on goat time, as Knox says. But Shivali Shah, vice mayor of Mount Rainier, said she expects they could hang around through the weekend if there’s more to do.
“In urban and suburban areas, you don’t really have an opportunity to see working animals like this — goats who aren’t here to be petted or fed. They’re here to get a job done,” she said. “It’s truly been a learning experience for the whole community.”
The goats have been grazing on an overgrown plot at 4011 Eastern Ave. that measures about a quarter-acre, City Councilman Bryan Knedler said. The parcel was donated to Mount Rainier in 2000 by the Rogers family, which developed a number of subdivisions in the area in the early 1900s.
The plot is officially known as Rogers Park. But at the time the city received it, Shah said, Mount Rainier was struggling financially and unable to maintain the property. Over the years, it fell into disrepair and became a dumping ground for lumber and construction materials.
The city received three proposals for clearing the land. The goats weren’t the cheapest, missing the mark by a couple thousand dollars, but the City Council decided it was the best option. The contract cost about $8,000 for a week’s worth of grazing and follow-up clearing by the goats’ human colleagues.
It’s the first step in turning the property into something the city will use, Shah said. Residents will be able to vote on their preferred uses in the coming months: Pitches so far include an amphitheater, a dog park and an adult exercise space with features for parkour — an activity a bit like running an obstacle course.
There are a few challenges in developing the land. It’s an “unusual shape,” Shah said, with sharp edges and a steep ravine that cuts through the center. And it sits on one of the busiest roads in the city.
Several residents who watched the goats this week said they would be happy if the land could remain a goat habitat. On any given evening, dozens of curious residents stopped by to watch the animals work.
“Mom, look! There’s no more tree,” shouted a gleeful toddler named Maurycy. “They’re eating it!”
Children on tricycles and scooters paused to stare while their parents offered factoids about the animals.
One man serenaded them with a rendition of the Rolling Stones’ version of “Poison Ivy,” while two new parents discussed the merits of goat landscaping as they passed their newborn back and forth.
“We are not buying a goat,” the woman said, finally.
Her verdict notwithstanding, Knox said most people fall in love with his goats.
“I’ve been stopping every day on my way home from work to watch them,” said Horace Smith, 63. “They’re so graceful, so pretty. I find it soothing just watching them move. It reminds you how beautiful and perfect nature can be.”