Conservationists tap into goat power

Angora goats summering on the cool flanks of Jane Bald savor a movable feast of blackberry leaves and the occasional treats of wild angelica and blueberry bush.

The white, curly-haired creatures browse thick vegetation on the 5,820-foot peak in a demonstration project to restore Jane Bald and other grassy areas into shaggy pastures rather than dense thickets.

So-called balds are treeless or nearly treeless mountains that can be found scattered about the Southern Appalachians, possible remnants from an era in which a much colder climate inhibited the growth of trees and promoted grasses. Conservation organizations, together with federal land managers, work to reverse the encroachment of woody plants to keep the balds in a historic natural state and goats are the latest option in that evolving strategy.

The 34 goats don't have free run of the mountains. They're confined by a portable electric fence that encloses about an acre. The corral keeps in the goats and keeps out predators like black bears and coyotes (so far no attacks).

Watching over is goatherd and botanist Jamey Donaldson, 39, who camps in a tent near his mohair munchers.

Every two weeks, when the goats have shorn the blackberries down to stalks, Donaldson pulls up the solar-powered fence and herds the animals to unbrowsed stands beside the Appalachian Trail near Roan Mountain.

“Once they strip the leaves, that's when they start going for the grasses and sedges,” he said. “That's when I move them.”

Donaldson's project is sponsored by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and other conservation groups and agencies. organizations and agencies. The idea is to see if the leaf-loving goats can help knock back the encroaching blackberry so grasses and sedges can reclaim their place in the sun.

Balds are home to bobwhite quail, bluebirds and rare animals and plants, including Gray's lily.

Hikers by the droves trek the Roan Mountain balds on national forest land to soak up the panoramic views. Beginning at N.C. 261 and heading north for 12 miles, the Appalachian Trail follows a mosaic of grassy openings mixed with red spruce forest.

Some scientists contend the Roan Mountain balds and others in the Southern Appalachians existed long before European settlement. The hypothesis is that natural forces created the balds thousands of years ago during the most recent Ice Age.

Extreme cold led to tundra-like conditions on high peaks. Large herbivores such as mastodons grazed the peaks until the animals went extinct 11,000 years ago.

Later, as the climate warmed, elk and bison continued to browse and graze until early settlers hunted them out and began pasturing their livestock.

Donaldson said farmers kept sheep on Jane Bald as recently as the 1960s. Photos from the early 1900s and 1930s show Jane Bald with a distinct buzz cut, not dreadlocks of foliage.

With the livestock gone, the balds are shrinking. Only 6 percent of the areas are being maintained to combat Canada blackberry, green alder and other woody invaders, according to Julie Judkins of the trail conservancy's Asheville office. The goats become a third tool to repel the invasion, along with mechanical mowing and weed-whacking volunteers.

Donaldson's project is sponsored by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and other conservation groups and agencies.

Donaldson and the “Baa-tany Goat Project” arrived at Jane Bald on July 1, thanks to a $5,000 grant from sales of “Appalachian Trail” N.C. specialty license plates.

Just before Labor Day, he introduced the goats to a volunteer work crew. “They're a desert breed,” Donaldson said, as the animals nibbled handouts of wild angelica and blueberry, which they relish. “Normally they get their water needs from plants or from heavy dew.”

Passing hiker Lois Heald of Winston-Salem stopped to ask about the goats. “Hope they'll work. Looks like they are,” Heald said, noticing a carpet of bare stalks in the gap below Jane Bald. Donaldson will retire the goats to winter quarters when the first freeze hits, usually in late September.

He'll cut the blackberry stalks, turn the goats loose on the sprouting plants in 2009 and give the stalks another mechanical whacking. He projects it will take three to five years to eliminate most of the blackberries, letting mountain oak grass and Pennsylvania sedge dominate.

“Yes, we are succeeding,” Donaldson said. “We have not succeeded.”