Goats on the Roan
the Baa-tany Goat Project
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A chance encounter during a hike along the Appalachian Trail near Carver's Gap, TN, led to my learning about this most unique endeavor, which is now 4 years into its experiment. While hiking along the AT past Jane Bald, I met a man scything a path through some thick undergrowth. Stopping to talk with him, I learned that he is a botanist, and also the caretaker of a group of goats who live on Roan Mountain during the summer months.
This area along the North Carolina/Tennessee border, unlike most of the mountains in this area, is treeless, providing utterly gorgeous, long range 360 degree views when hiking in the area. Due to the lack of tree cover, the knolls in this area of mountains are called balds.
Some of the areas are currently kept open of woody growth by periodic mowing done by the Forest Service. Mowing was occurring on my first trip to this area .... I arrived around 8:30am on a weekday, with only one other hiker in sight. I was looking forward to a day of solitude exploring these open mountains, but was greeted instead by the on-going drone of mowers going up and down the hillside.
Because of the vast openness ... sound carries, and even a mile beyond the mowers, I could still hear their whine in the distance. At one point, I heard a huge CLUNK, and the engines came to a grinding halt, and suddenly there was perfect stillness!
After the CLUNK that brought the whine of the mowers to a halt, as I rounded Jane Bald, I heard a different sound ... one of a person using a scythe (no fumes, and a most pleasant, rhythmic, almost indiscernable sound!)
This was my chance meeting with Jamey Donaldson, that got me so interested in the Goat Project. As a botanist by training, he has a wealth of knowledge about the many, many varieties of plants on the balds, the area's geologic past, as well as more recent history including European settlers from several decades past. He told me about work done on plant succession in the 1930's by D.M. Brown, a botanist with what was then called East Tennessee State Teachers College (now, East Tennessee State University).
Some scientists contend the treeless areas 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.1
D.M. Brown planted a patch of Fraser firs on the bald in the 1940s, trying to solve the mystery of the balds by seeing if fir trees could live and reproduce in the treeless area of thick grass. His trees grew well, but they did not reproduce2. You can still see this patch of trees as you hike towards Round Bald from Carver Gap.
Several weeks after my first visit to the area, I returned to take part in a Goat Hike, a "meet the goats and learn about the project" day that had folks hike up to the area on Roan Mountain where the goats are living to learn more about this endeavor. The contrast between land cleared by the mowers vs. the goats was like night and day. The goats certainly do eat A LOT of vegetation, but it is selective. They LOVE blackberry plants, but leave alone other plants like the green alder and rhododendrons.
During the Goat Hike, Jamey Donaldson, who stays on the mountain during the summer to care for the goats and to document their effect on the vegetation, introduced us to the goats, and showed how they munch on the blackberry vines, but leave other, desired plants alone. The area the goats had been in still showed lots of variety in its plant growth, contrasting with the mowed areas' thick areas of piled up mulch, and not much else.
The photo above shows an area after the goats have grazed the area. The photo below shows a close up of the variety of growth still present.
While the goats are on the mountain over the course of the summer, they live in one acre paddocks, encircled by a flexible, mesh fence that is electified via solar powered units. They live with two Great Pyrenees, named Bean and Baxter, who are their watch dogs.
Bean (or maybe it's Baxter!) with one of the goats. Below, Bean and Baxter, with Linda, the woman who raised them, coming down off the mountain during the herding of the goats.
As the goats eat down the plants in one area, they are moved to another area. During the summer of 2010, they were moved 18 times. (This is what Jamey was doing scything when I first met him ... he was clearing out a fence line for the next paddock's location.)
Areas along the mountain that Jamey has cleared with a scythe, allowing making a location for the flexible fencing for the goats' paddock
Water is hauled from this nearby spring to the paddock's water-tub. Most all the water is consumed by the two dogs .... 90% or more. The goats get most of their water needs from the plants themselves.
The photo below shows the nearby spring and the "scooping pitcher" with which water is scooped into the cannister for hauling back to the goats. I'm guessing that Jamey or one of the project's volunteers discovered some birds splashing around in this spring and so labeled the pitcher!!
Click the photo to view full size to get a better view of the spring in the lower left quadrant of the photo!
The "Goat Project" began in 2008 when Trudy, a goat owner in northern Virginia, donated 19 goats to begin the project because she wanted to give them a retirement plan rather than send them to the meat market. These goats are dedicated for the ecological restoration work. The Project has promised to provide for them (and their offspring) for the rest of their natural lives3.
I've seen far too many times when animals are living less than humane lives because they are being used for human endeavors.
For me as a vegan, this project has been such a joy to learn about and see first hand. The fact that the first goats were first donated to prevent their deaths at a slaughterhouse is incredible to me. To see how Jamey and Todd Eastin, who cares for the goats in the winter on his farm in Shady Valley, TN treat and interact with the goats was a delight to see. Jamey knows all the goats by name (each is available for adoption to help support this volunteer project, and the person adopting gets to name his/her goat).
The Herding of the Goats
My first volunteer experience with this project was in mid September, 2010, when the goats were moved from their summer home (Roan Mountain) to their winter home in Shady Valley, TN
Todd Eastin, Jamey, and a slew of volunteers hiked up to Jane Bald to help walk the goats down the mountain.
I was one of many who volunteered to assist on this day, with the goal being to lead the goats off the mountain to Todd's trailer at Carvers Gap, for the ride back to Shady Valley.
The goats (and human helpers) had approximately a 1.5 mile hike over the balds along the mountain's crest to get to the road where the trailer was waiting. The first half of the goats followed the humans' plan perfectly, coming out of their pen, down the path, into the trailer.
However, the other half of the goats simply did not want to leave. After much, much coaxing, Jamey, Todd, myself and one other volunteer finally got the goats out onto the path, and they FINALLY started down as a group.
That is, until they found a thick rhododendron patch in one of the areas roughest areas. It was on the steep side of Jane Bald, filled with huge rocks and thick, thick rhodos.
The goats liked the rhodos ... thick, cool, shady. And funny thing ... humans have the hardest time moving around in them!
Todd went in time and time again, most of the time on his hands and knees, crawling under the rhodo's thick, twisty branches, shooing the goats towards the path. Only to have them go into the rhodos on the OTHER side of the path!
Never once did Todd lose his patience with the goats or treat them with anything other than care, love, and respect.
(They finally decided to follow their human helpers, and slowly made their way to the trailer.)
Pictures of the goats and their human helpers coming down off Roan Mountain in the Fall of 2010.
The picture below shows the scenery one can see from the balds.
Another example of the care shown to these animals was the transport of Asa, a large male goat who had developed a weakness in his lower legs from a parasitic infection. He could walk a little, but often his hind legs would give out and his lower half of his body would fall onto the ground.
During the trip off the mountain, for a while Jamey and several others CARRIED this goat on a tarp. Other times, when he was able to walk, Jamey would keep his hind end from falling when he saw the legs give out, lifting up the goat's body weight as he got his legs back under him.
The project utilizes volunteers in several capacities, including weekend "goat-sitting". Jamey stays on the mountain with the goats through the week; on weekends, volunteers do so while Jamey returns home for a couple days. I have done two goat-sitting weekends so far, and hope to do more!
As a volunteer goat-sitter, one's duties are primarily to "be present" .... visually checking the security of the fencing through the day, counting the goats to make sure all are accounted for, and being present to call for help if a goat becomes sick or injured.
It is a pleasant 48 hours on the mountain, giving one a chance to escape from the "normal" world for a time. And the camping --- doesn't get much better than what you see in the photo below!!
These goats are an Angora breed; their coats are suitable for shearing and spinning into fiber. This is another way in which the project is raising funds to continue its efforts in coming years. If your are interested, you can support the project by adopting a goat (for a month or for the season), volunteering, or purchasing yarn. To learn more and/or for contact information, please see the Baa-tany Goat Blog.
1 - Charlotte Observer online edition, posted Sept 10, 2008 at http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2008/09/10/182673/conservationists-tap-into-goat.html
2 - Conversations with Jamey Donaldson, as well as a citation on GORP.com (Great Outdoor Recreation Pages) at http://www.gorp.com/parks-guide/travel-ta-hiking-roan-mountain-appalachian-trail-roan-mountain-state-park-sidwcmdev_056621.html
3 - Baa-tany Goat Project brochure, found online here.