There's a new weapon in the battle against wildfires — goats

Science Friday

There is a new and effective weapon in the battle to reduce and contain wildfires in Southern California — teams of ‘elite’ goats.

PRI’s Science Friday video producer Luke Groskin got up an up close view of some of these goats in action.

“I joined Brush Goats 4 Hire,” Groskin explains, “a company that owns about 600 goats. I joined their herd in the hills near Santa Barbara as they basically devoured a field of weeds and brush and ivy and all sorts of other stuff.”

One of the best ways to prevent and contain wildfires is to deprive them of the fuel that allows them to spread. Typically, clearing vulnerable areas is done with heavy machinery or crews with chainsaws and other tools. But, it turns out, goats can sometimes be a better and more cost-effective solution.

“The thing about goats is that they have to eat a lot,” Groskin says. “They’re the envy of pretty much every Southern Californian — they can eat about five to 15 percent of their body weight and they still look great on camera.”

Goats have to eat every two hours because they are ruminants — that is, they have four stomachs for digesting food and they require frequent refills.

About 300 goats will clear an acre of land in a day. 

Just to be clear, Groskin notes, these are not your average goats. These are elite goats, specially trained and selected for the job. "They are hardy, they’re independent and they don’t like people," he says. "They’re pretty awesome.”

Groskin says people and businesses throughout California are starting to use goats to clear invasive weeds or dry brush that could be potential fuel for wildfires. Most often, these businesses and homes straddle the border between urban and wild areas. These are places that are environmentally sensitive or hard to get to with machinery. They're the kind of places goats thrive.

And, of course, goats can get to other places firefighters can’t, like inaccessible canyons, steep hillsides and ravines. “Goats like to climb and are very good at it,” says Groskin. “They’re perfectly at home in rocky outcropping areas, where you couldn't get a large masticating bulldozer that would tear up the soil while it’s at it.”

Groskin mounted a Go-Pro camera — naturally dubbed a Goat-Pro camera —on some of the goats. Aside from the fun factor, Raskin said the camera confirmed a characteristic of goats that turns out to be critical to their ability to clear large areas of brush and weeds.

“The cameras showed us that goats are not grazers ...they’re browsers. So they nibble a little and then they move along, and then they nibble a little and move along. It proves once and for all that goats do not just eat anything and everything they see. ... They’re actually really selective.”

And, by the way, Groskin adds, goats do not eat tin cans. That’s an urban myth — or, rather, a rural myth.

This story is based on an interview that originally aired on PRI's Science Friday.