Visitors to the Houston Arboretum & Nature Center might have been surprised last week to find more than 140 goats munching away on the slopes at the Woodway ponds. Executive Director Debbie Markey said the goats were rented from Rent-A-Ruminant Texas as an additional land-management method for the Arboretum, located inside Memorial Park at 4501 Woodway Dr.
The good news is that if you didn’t get a chance to check them out, the goats will be back Nov. 1 for a two-week stint.
Markey said in recent years, with Hurricane Ike in 2008, nature hit the reset button at the overly wooded arboretum, which used to be a Gulf Coast Prairie. By restoring the land, and letting appropriate grasses grow, both wildlife and pollinators have increased.
“We can be a big green sponge,” Markey said.
But managing the land isn’t easy. Enter the goats, which are used to clear overgrown vegetation.
Board member Ruth Flournoy was familiar with the practice, having used goats on her ranch. The former conservation director, Emily Manderson, had also seen Rent-A-Ruminant goats at a Hermann Park demonstration.
Markey noted that in the old days, bison would do the same type of thinning. Also, as goats don’t need to social distance right now like arboretum staff, and because they leave only fertilizer – not unsightly thatch like a traditional mower – Markey made the decision to try them out on the hard-to-access ponds.
The arboretum job was Rent-A-Ruminant Texas’ first nonprofit gig. Kyle Carr, who owns the company with wife Carolyn, said they’ve been in business for five years. They bought and opened the Texas franchise from Tammy Dunakin, who started it in the Seattle area. Dunakin came to Texas to train the Abilene-area couple.
Carr said while goats were used in Texas for smaller jobs, Rent-A-Ruminant Texas is the first to do it in the state on a large scale. He said that while it took them a while to build up their reputation, business has really picked up in the past five years.
“We’re booked out from March through November,” he said.
While the initial herd of goats was raised by the Carrs, they also adopted more than 100 goats from a Florida animal refuge through a family connection. About 150 goats in Florida were stranded in a parking lot after Hurricane Michael in 2018 and – with the presence of several males – the population quickly tripled in size.
While the Carrs have 220 goats in total, only 140-180 travel for work. The others are either in training or mothers raising their young.
At the arboretum, they were contained during the day by a low-voltage fence while they worked. The goats had plenty of human company.
“We got an insane amount of press,” Markey said. “Visitor numbers are up anyway (during the COVID-19 pandemic), but parking reports said that Saturday was a record day. The weather was beautiful the whole week.”
It was a boon to the arboretum, which has recently restarted distanced, in-person programming for the first time since March.
Markey said she was amazed at the job the goats did.
“It was so thick, and they just wormed their way in there,” she said, adding that the growth they didn’t eat were plants and grasses the arboretum wanted to keep anyway. “They did their job.”
While the trial run cost a little more than $3,000, the upcoming project in the savannah area will be larger and more expensive. It is being underwritten by Main Street Capital.
“We are able to do a scientific study,” Markey said. “We are documenting everything and doing drone shots before and after. We’ll see how it looks in the spring.”
Oak Forest’s Laura Tunstall said she knew the goats were coming to the arboretum because a women’s hiking group she belongs to let her know.
“It was such a neat thing to see,” she said. “I’m glad the Arboretum is using an effective natural method of clearing out underbrush. The goats go for the poison ivy first so that is good for us human visitors. It was definitely a memorable event.”