Yesterday, just before noon, reporters, officials from New York State Parks, Prospect Park Alliance and—last but certainly not least—eight goats, gathered in the Vale of Cashmere, a wooded region in Prospect Park’s northeast perimeter. The sky was clear, the sun shone down humid warmth; birds chirped; kids shrieked playfully, scampering around logs fashioned into play structures at the abutting Zucker Natural Exploration Area—a project created from felled Hurricane Sandy trees, meant to promote “unstructured play,” and that seemed to be happening.

Sue Donoghue, president of the Prospect Park Alliance, stood behind a podium just in front of a hill, whose steep gradient held the goats. They lazed about on top of a bunch of weeds, disinterested in the people below them, and were mostly static.

“Everyone is very anxious to see the goats, so I’ll make a few brief remarks, and then we are going to take folks in and see the goats up close,” said Donoghue, as cameras took images of the out-of-the-ordinay furry animals—unusual, at least, to press previews. “So welcome you all on behalf of our newest landscape management crew,” Donoghue continued, referencing the goats of course.

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Hurricane Sandy did quite a number on Prospect Park. The storm took out 500 trees on its grounds in total, including 50 in the Vale of Cashmere alone. Absent the park’s native trees and their shade-giving canopies, sun prompted the growth of invasive weeds in their stead, species like Poison Ivy, English Ivy, and Goutweed. The weedy carpet is not only (at times) poisonous to people, but removing it is difficult work, especially on steep hills, and costly given labor and the machinery required for the job. Still, it’s work that needs to happen before the original Maples, Oaks, Sweetgums, and more, can be replanted.

And it just so happens that goats—who can eat approximately a quarter of their weight in weeds in a day, including those poisonous to people, and on steep gradients—are a dream for this job. Their carbon footprint is nothing, the cost is low, and, last but not least, just because it’s worth repeating: they’re goats, which is exciting for everyone.

“Personally, I was ecstatic about the goats; I’ve been in love with goats since I was born… but that’s just me,” Leslie Wright told me. She is the New York City Regional Director of New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. After opening remarks, we stood at the top of the hill, the goats just below us, as photographers were let into the gated perimeter to take a closer look. (We were assured they were friendly.) “Who amongst us really has all that much interest, at first blush, hearing about clearing an invasive species?” Wright asked. “But when there are goats here? It makes it that much more interesting and accessible.”

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Grant money from the project comes from National Park Service to restore regions damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The available pool was $11.3 million, which was divided and allocated to 27 different projects in 9 different New York counties. Brooklyn received eight of those grants, including Prospect Park Alliance, who, in two rounds of grant awarding, got a total of $1.2 million.

Wright, with New York State Parks, is administering those grants. The Alliance’s first award was $725,000, covering the goats and restoration of the woodlands in the Vale of Cashmere. The remainder will restore Lookout Hill, an area that is about the size of a soccer field, farther South and West of the woodlands. When all is said and done, the Alliance will have re-planted four thousand seedlings of native trees and shrubs.

As people timidly and less-timidly walked up to the goat landscapers, a human from the crew was also there, Christian Zimmerman. He is the Vice President of Capital and Landscape Management with the Prospect Park Alliance, a position he’s held since 1990. In his time at the park, he’s seen a lot: the entire building of Le Frak, plus the restoration of playgrounds, woodlands, waterfalls and the ravine.

“The storm came from the north and knocked trees down all over the place, and it opened up the canopy,” says Zimmerman, “so [the weeds] just take over.” Of course, damage was wreaked throughout the park, but for the purposes of awarding grants, they identified concentrated areas with the most severe damage. Zimmerman will be watching the goats, who will live in the fenced in area, over the course of five months to see how efficiently they’re eating weeds.

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And while Zimmerman has not worked with goats personally prior to this project, they are known to be gifted weed eaters (they were used at Freshkills to get rid of stubborn, tall phragmites weeds) and, Zimmerman adds, they were also a part of Frederick Olmsted’s original plan for Prospect Park.

Sounds like a reasonable park amenity in the mid-19th century. But how did he find goats today? “Um…” Zimmerman hesitated a second, “Google.”

It turns out not a lot of people offer goats for these purposes. Zimmerman found one guy in Maryland, but he wouldn’t travel this far north. Ultimately, Larry Cihanek, who owns Green Goats in Rhinebeck, was the man for the job, and provided the goats. They’ll be carted back an forth between Upstate and the Park until the weeds stop growing back.

“The idea is to suck nutrients and energy from invasive plants and roots, so they slowly die off,” says Zimmerman.

That will be a fine day; and in the meantime, you should go to Prospect Park and get a glimpse of eight landscape professionals, hard at work.

All photos by Jane Bruce.

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