Visitors to Nose Hill will be seeing more a different sort of animal than the ground squirrels, deer, and coyotes that are common in the park.
For the next 30 days, goats will be grazing the northeastern slopes of Nose Hill Park in an effort to control invasive plant species.
The city has been using goat herds since 2016 to manage those species, like Canada thistle, in an ecologically friendly way.
“Introducing targeted grazing back to the Hill will help remove dead vegetation and keep the competitive species in check,” said Andrew Phelps, a parks ecologist with the City of Calgary.
Trent Cahoon, a goat herder with Creekside Goats from Magrath, Alberta, had more than a hundred goats on the hill during the afternoon on Oct. 14.
“It’s way more eco-friendly. Like if you come in and spray you’re killing all kinds of stuff, killing earthworms, killing a lot of the ecosystem, just to keep a desired species there,” Cahoon said.
“Whereas with goats, we come in and it’s generally a four- to five-year process to eradicate certain weeds, but it’s incredible to see, even like the next season.”
He said that, as an example, a site that his goats grazed in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, the natural brush and natural grasses were able to return.
The City of Calgary is currently working to naturalize the north eastern slopes of the park as part of a Calgary City Council approved Biodiversity Strategic Plan. The goal of that plan is to restore 20 per cent of Calgary’s open space in the next three years.
The herd, shepherds, and herding dogs will be living on Nose Hill during the grazing period.
Many benefits to the grazing program
The city said that the goats have a number of benefits and act in a way that improves biodiversity and wildlife habitat. In the past, animals like bison, elk, and even cattle would do the job the goats are now performing in the park.
“Grazing has historically been an important part of the ecology of Nose Hill and has played a critical role in maintaining the native grassland species diversity,” said Phelps.
“The goats are essentially opening new ‘real estate’ for native species to colonize and this encourages healthy wildlife habitat and biodiversity on the Hill.”
Among the other benefits cited by the city were the goat droppings that would be used as fertilizer, and goat hooves working the soil, helping to till, aerate and condition the ground for better growth by native species.
Cahoon said that the goats have additional benefits beyond spraying and mowing that have impacts on public safety.
“You can take a lot of things by mowing, but then you’ve got all of the all of the remains there which can go up in flames,” he said.
“The goats come in, they take it out, they leave fertilizer, and they don’t leave the fire hazard—so everything comes back greener when the goat has been through it.”
The goat grazing program began with a successful pilot at Confluence Park in North West Calgary in 2016. It has been subsequently been used as part of a naturalization projects in McHugh Bluff, and in coordination with the city’s Water Services at Ralph Klein Park and the Fish Creek Waste Water Treatment Plant.
The city has also used sheep as part of their targeted grazing in the Weaselhead to help restore the native grass species rough fescue.
Nose Hill thistle a treat for goats
Cahoon said that his goats were focusing primarily on the thistle, because that is what the goats like to eat.
“Sheep will go for the grass first and leave more weeds, but goats are the opposite,” he said.
“They like the weeds and the thorns, and it doesn’t matter how thorny it is. They’ll take out blackberry; take it right out.”
He said that generally goats like thistle after it has had a good first freeze of the season, but the goats were really taking to the species found on Nose Hill.
“They’ve been camped out on this thistle for hours now, and they’re just they’re loving it,” he said.
“Here in Calgary, they’re liking the thistle that they didn’t like in other places.”
The City of Calgary will have program ambassadors on site on Oct. 22 and 30, and Nov. 5 and 9 to answer any questions. Although Calgarians are not permitted to interact with the animals, they can be seen from pathways leading from the 64 Avenue NW parking lot.