Jeannette Hall walks beside a pond in central Alberta, a friendly old goat named Midnight baahhing behind her. She waits for it to catch up, then gives the 11-year-old nanny a drink from a water bottle.
All around, there are goats. A Boer here, a Lamancha there. Here an Angora, there a Kiko.
They amble along a path ahead of her, stopping to bite tops off tansies and scarf down scentless chamomile. They stand on their hind legs to prune leaves on aspens and scrape bark off poplars. They climb hills and perch atop rocks and then leap off, like kids at a playground.
“It’s like having 100 toddlers,” Ms. Hall says. “But these guys won’t grow up.”
For the past three years, she and her husband, Dan Vandenberg, have operated Baah’d Plant Management & Reclamation. They travel all over Alberta with a herd of 400 goats that are trained to eat noxious and invasive weeds. Last week, they bedded down in Calgary, where their mission was to rid Confluence Park of the scourge of leafy spurge. This week they begin a gig in Edmonton, chowing down on bothersome burdock and removing dead grass at Rundle Park.
It is the second year the city has engaged the goats as an organic alternative to using chemicals. Not only do the animals mow down a variety of problem plants, but they also churn up soil and then fertilize it naturally.
“I don’t do this because I love goats,” Ms. Hall, 33, says. “I do it because I love the environment.”
At 19, she had fake nails, a spray-on tan and highlights in her hair. She was an aspiring actress and college student until she saw environmentalist David Suzuki give a lecture at Calgary’s Mount Royal University about living a balanced life.
He was heckled at the end – for driving a diesel automobile – and it got her thinking. Later that night, she told her mom, “I am going to live in the bush for two years.”
She wanted to see how close to being carbon-free she could get, and lived on a parcel of her grandfather’s land in a 12-by 15-foot cabin without electricity or heat. She snowshoed in, in the dead of winter. She cooked on a camp stove, cleansed herself with sponge baths and used an outhouse.
“I lived in snowpants and slept with my dog to keep warm,” Ms. Hall says. “I will never forget trying to sleep on the first night. I was shivering and watching my breath.”
She moved back to Calgary two years later to pursue a diploma in environmental technology at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. She was employed in the oil and gas industry and as a habitat co-ordinator for a conservation organization before going to work for Alberta Parks, where she met her husband, a maintenance supervisor at the Bow Valley Campground at the time.
They have been married for five years, and have been shepherding goats around for the last three. The herd they acquired had previously been used as part of a land-management research project.
“We didn’t just buy random goats,” Ms. Hall says.
They sold all of their belongings, sinking every cent into their business. They downsized from a four-bedroom house into an eight-by 16-foot cabin in southern Alberta where they live off the grid. They travel with the goats from work site to work site, sleeping in a motorhome with the weed-eaters corralled in pens at night.
“We are the only ones doing it on a scale like this,” she says. “Keeping them on the weeds is the trick. You have to be present and manage them.”
The goats’ mothers teach them which plants to eat, and Ms. Hall reinforces it by hand-feeding them noxious weeds as babies.
“It is like training a dog,” she says. “You have to pick a whole lot of weeds until they start eating them intentionally.”
Ms. Hall writes daily reports and takes soil samples wherever they are working. She studies the nutrient content in an attempt to determine what causes the weeds to grow there.
She and her husband have a growing list of clients, including farmers, property owners that engage the goats to eat brush that could fuel fires, and companies clearing the way for pipelines and power transmission lines. They happily graze on oxeye daisy and yellow toadflax, Canadian thistle and dandelions, and create a sensation wherever they go. In Calgary and Edmonton, park use soars.
“We shut down Deerfoot Trail once,” she says of the busy thoroughfare in Calgary. “Too many people turned out to see them. There was no place to park.
“It was great.”
The goats will arrive in Edmonton sometime this week, and will return to Rundle Park two or three times over the summer. The duration of the stays depend on the weeds’ tenacity.
The city is planning two “Meet and Bleats” with the herd some time in July.
Last week, Joy Lakhan, Edmonton’s goat co-ordinator, was preparing for their stay. Tanks with 2,000 litres of drinking water were hauled in, as were loads of mulch for their bedding.
“I really enjoyed the time I got to spend with them last summer,” Ms. Lakhan says. “They are extremely friendly and amazing to watch. There is a certain simplicity and brilliance in what they do.”
Before travelling to Edmonton, Ms. Hall and Mr. Vandenberg and their goats made a quick stop last week in Lacombe, where the herd was tasked with eating weeds around sewage-treatment lagoons.
The pair walk along with the goats, and have cattle dogs that help keep them in line. They also have a 160-pound Great Pyrenees dog named Suzuki who protects the goats from coyotes and other predators.
The goats follow closely behind Suzuki as he keeps a careful watch for trouble.
When the goats begin to wander too far afield, Ms. Hall hollers.
“Get back,” she shouts.
The herd turns and comes back, following her command like a bunch of puppies.
“You can’t do that with a bunch of farm goats,” she says.