A tribe of 20 goats arrived at the Wyman Park Dell last Thursday afternoon, tasked with munching on the overgrown shrubs of the hillside across the street from the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA).
Spectators gathered at a social distance from the fenced-in goats, envious of them for dodging the Pandora’s box that COVID-19 has exposed. I and a dozen others stared at the adorable ungulates in awe as they frolicked, uninhibited by the plagues of humankind: economic crisis, systemic racism, politics and, of course, a literal plague.
Beyond providing entertainment and a fleeting reprieve from 2020, the goats are part of the Friends of Wyman Park Dell’s plans to increase the visibility of the park along Art Museum Drive.
The group’s president, Cailin McGough, explained in an interview with The News-Letter that the nonprofit organization, composed of Charles Village and Remington residents, seeks to revitalize the park and its greenery.
Thanks to the company Eco-Goats, McGough said, the Friends of Wyman Park Dell can fulfill this mission in an environmentally-friendly way.
“People love goats, and it’s been a rough year,” she said. “It’s really fun to see the community get so into it.”
The pandemic forced the group to pause its activities in March and cancel events such as the annual Charles Village Festival this May.
However, McGough stated that after resuming cleanups of the park during the summer, the group decided to tackle a long-held goal: clearing the dense foliage on the hillside.
“We talked with the city about getting it mowed, but it was too steep of a slope,” she said.
So, the Friends of Wyman Park Dell used GoFundMe to raise $3,500 to pay for Eco-Goats’ services.
Brian Knox, president of Sustainable Resource Management, Inc. and supervising forester for Eco-Goats, noted that the hillside — rife with rocks, thorns and heavy vegetation — would be dangerous for a human crew.
“It’s pretty amazing what the goats can do, and that allows you — if you do want to get in there with a crew — to do so much more safely,” he said. “The goats are a great first wave.”
During our interview, Knox declined to predict how long the goats would be spending in the Dell. (Originally slated to stay for just the weekend, they wound up leaving on Wednesday).
“We work on goat time,” he said. “Sometimes they’re much faster, and sometimes they just sit around and digest, and I wish they’d go back to work, but they’re just laying around.”
Knox founded Eco-Goats 12 years ago, after a client with a bevy of goats did not know what to do with them. For about a year, Eco-Goats dominated Knox’s life, but now he takes only a job or two a month, just to break even.
“We look at sites and decide whether or not goats are the right tool. They’re a wonderful tool, but they’re not the right tool for every job,” he said. “At sites that have a lot of native vegetation already in place, the goats might do more damage than good.”
According to Knox, the goats are best deployed at locations like the slope, where native species are overwhelmed by invasive ones, such as ivy, wild grape, multiflora rose and honeysuckle.
“The goats are very good at reducing seed production because they like flowers and seed pods, where the nutrition is,” he said. “What we want to do is give the native species a leg up by removing the invasive species.”
For wildlife, invasive species are like junk food, Knox said, preventing certain birds from obtaining the nutrition they need to sustain their migration.
He emphasized that while ecosystems are generally able to take care of themselves, invasive species complicate this when they emerge in habitats where they didn’t evolve.
Although Maryland’s Forest Conservation Act, passed in 1991, helps preserve forests and other areas, Knox noted, it does not ensure that there is someone maintaining them. As a result, sites can become overrun with invasive species.
“If you’re not actively working with your site to watch it and prevent the degradation of the species mix and the habitat, then it doesn’t matter whether you save it or not, because it’s not really functioning as it was intended,” he said.
Knox highlighted the role that humans play in maintaining woodlands, but noted that “the goats are always more fun.”
“It gets the community involved, and it makes people happy... It builds interest and involves people in a different way of thinking about their interactions with the natural world,” he said. “They come every day, they see the goats and they get kind of annoyed when we take them away because they enjoy them so much.”
McGough hopes that goats will return to the Dell soon. Unfortunately, though, they probably won’t be an annual feature.
Until December, the Friends of Wyman Park Dell will host monthly cleanups, albeit with human volunteers.
Indeed, you don’t have to consume vegetation to help out. The Hopkins baseball team volunteers at the park every fall, McGough said, and the nonprofit has worked with Hopkins service organizations for years.
“What I’d love to see is more Hopkins students coming over to hang out in the Dell,” she said. “Sometimes it gets overlooked because it’s a little bit off the beaten path, and if you’re walking on Charles Street, you may not even know that it’s there, but it’s a gorgeous park.”
In the future, McGough said, the Friends of Wyman Park Dell aims to recenter the entrance of the park to directly across from the BMA. I certainly hope that the goats are involved.
For now, though, you sadly may have missed them (I wish I were kidding). But if you’re in Baltimore, consider visiting the Dell. It’s not far at all from campus, so venture past the Beach and frolic at the Dell for somewhere new to ruminate.
To the detriment of The News-Letter’s investigoative journalism, the goats denied multiple requests for comment, offering only dismissive bleats.