Clearing a trail, one bite at a time

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Day and night during the last two weeks of July, a band of workers quietly and methodically rid 14 acres of the new Chester hiking trail of the invasive barberry bush – by eating it.

Photos from July 20 and Aug. 1 show the effect a herd of goats can have on invasive vegetation. Photos by Cynthia Prairie and Shawn Cunningham

Actually the 16 goats – from Slippery Slope Farm in Londonderry – only ate the leaves, but with barberry, that’s enough. Stripping the leaves before the bushes flower and go to seed prevents them from reproducing. Each year, the plant puts its energy into reaching the flowering stage and if the leaves are consistently removed, in time it uses up the reserves of its roots and dies off. (See the goat gallery at the bottom of the story)

And that’s important along a public hiking trail because barberry is recognized as a welcoming environment for blackleg ticks that can carry Lyme disease among others. A 2013 bulletin from the University of Connecticut and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station said that a forest infested by barberry could have 120 ticks per acre while a forest without the invasive bushes would support 10 ticks per acre.

According to Chester Town Manager Julie Hance, the original plan was to use herbicides on the barberry, but Chester Conservation Committee member Frank Kelley suggested the goats, and farmer Aimee Braxmeier agreed.

On July 19,  Braxmeier brought the goats to the field behind the Academy Building and with the help of committee members crossed a temporary bridge with some reluctant goats and set them up within solar electric fences to begin munching. The goats are trained to avoid the fences so during the daytime there is just a minimal zap, but at night the fences give off a substantial charge to discourage coyotes and other predators.

The fences keep the goats in and predators out but according to Braxmeier they serve another function. “The goats will eat the candy before their vegetables,” says Braxmeier noting that some vegetation is more appealing and they will go looking for that first. But by using smaller fences to limit their range the goats exhaust the “candy” quickly and get down to work on the barberry.

So with the help of the conservation group, Braxmeier laid out several areas contained within two 164 foot rolls of fence with a shelter for the goats to go under when it rains. Then they moved the herd when the goats have exhausted an area. Braxmeier calls it “targeted grazing.”

“The idea is to get in and get out,” says Braxmeier about each small section so the goats get the barberry and leave before any adverse effects on the area – like soil compaction or stripping bark from beneficial trees. In the end, the goats grazed six enclosures with about two days spent in each.

“It went very well, we got a lot more done than I expected and learned a lot about managing how long the goats stay in each enclosure,” said Braxmeier, “There’s fine line between getting enough of the barberry before the goats start chewing on things you don’t want them to – like bark.”

Originally the goats were scheduled for about one week for $2,000 – same as the cost of herbicide spraying, but Braxmeier liked the idea of working on the hiking trail and extended the stay at the same price.

One thing Braxmeier wanted to do was keep the project low-key. While members of the conservation committee helped get the goats across the Lovers Lane Brook and visited to water and check on the goats, there was no publicity. Braxmeier explained that the herd was there largely by themselves around the clock for two weeks and the fewer people who knew the better. She was concerned about visitors getting zapped by the fence, letting the goats out or other problems. In fact, the first night the goats were in residence, someone opened the spigot on the goats’ 275 gallon water supply and drained it completely. Water superintendent Jeff Holden quickly refilled the supply.

Throughout the two weeks, Braxmeier visited the goats twice a day and members of the conservation committee checked in on the goats as well. “We had so much help from the conservation committee,” said Braxmeier, “there were so many people who helped out moving fences and hauling water.”

“This was a wonderful community project,” said Kelley, “we’re all really pleased with how it went.”

The Brookside Trail

All of this munching is part of a project to create a one mile trail on 14+ acres of town land that’s behind the Academy Building and on the north side of the Lovers Lane Brook.

VYCC members work on Chester’s disc golf course after finishing on the Brookside Trail. Photo courtesy Gary King

Toward the end of June, a group from the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps worked four days on clearing the trail, working on drainage, cutting back trees and installing stepping stones. On their final day the group worked on a portion of the disc golf course at the Pinnacle recreation area.

“We’ve been trying to get the Brookside Trail into play for about five years,” says Gary King, who coordinated the work of the VYCC workers for the conservation committee. “Now the main obstacle is the bridge.”

The permanent bridge over the brook has been engineered according to Town Manager Julie Hance and the beams and decking are being ordered while Springfield Fence is fabricating a railing system.

“The Recreation Facilities Grant that for the VYCC work and is also paying for the bridge. All the work under that grant work has to be done by Oct. 1” said Hance, “Realistically the bridge should be done in September and it’s my goal to have the trail open by Fall Festival Weekend.” That will be Sept. 18 and 19.


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  1. Lew Watters says:

    Reading about the VYCC helping with the trail building in Chester reminded me of days of yore when our youngest daughter Kelly spent a summer building a trail and a bridge in southern Vermont. It was life changing as she continued to do volunteer work in public lands during her high school years. Fast forward to now and she is earning a master’s degree in elementary education with an emphasis on special needs children. Her skill is connecting students to their environment, land, nature and sustainability.

  2. Kimberly Farrar says:

    This is so wonderful! I am so happy we used goats instead of pesticides. A huge thank you to Aimee and all of her human and animal helpers! Kim Farrar