Goats take pleasure and sustenance from their work in ways that people don’t. Goats don’t talk back, they don’t demand 401(k)s or pensions, and even their lunch breaks are productive. (They do get health care of a sort, at least in Maryland.) Sure, robots might do the job someday, too — but would you eat their cheese?
“Right now one of the greatest unsung heroes on the American highway is the goat,” said Doug Hecox, a spokesman with the Federal Highway Administration. The FHWA knows of at least seven states using animals to maintain roadway medians and berms: California, Hawaii, Idaho, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina and Washington.
Maryland, which has been using goats and sheep since 2009 on a patch of highway in Carroll County, is open to the idea of expanding their use. Pittsburgh set them loose them in city parks last year as an alternative to herbicides, stateline.org reported. It’s an idea that’s probably been around as long as goats, too. President Woodrow Wilson brought in sheep to trim the White House lawn in 1918.
The beauty of using goats, of course, is that they’re cheap and environmentally friendly. They even have a taste for invasive plants and noxious weeds. Give them a bunch of English ivy or porcelain berry vines to gobble up and, by goodness, they’re eager for more. Some become so keen on the task at hand that their minders don’t have to worry about them wandering off the job site, Hecox said.
“Goats have a special talent,” he said. “They are really, really focused.”
Maryland began using them as a way to mitigate the environmental impact from the Hampstead Bypass project on Route 30 in 2009. During the planning of the roadway, officials discovered that construction would affect bog turtles living in a three-acre wetland. The species was already endangered, so the project was temporarily halted.
The Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration then altered the road design to avoid the bog turtles’ habitat. The area was fenced off below ground to protect the turtles, and the roadway went through.
But the state still had to maintain the area and find a way to keep the grass down without using poisonous chemicals in the wetland or heavy-duty mowers that would hurt the turtles. So they brought in goats and sheep from a local farmer, who turns them loose in the enclosed area.
“It’s kind of an innovation,” MDSHA spokesman Charlie Gischler said. He said the cost to the state per year is about $6,300, including veterinary bills. The program has worked so well that state officials might use the animals elsewhere.
“It’s an option that’s on the table,” Gischler said.