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Goats Get Downsized

Most people have grown used to waking up to outside sounds of accidentally triggered car alarms, barking dogs, noisy crows, even police and fire sirens.  But in few places in county other than Laguna do the hills come alive with the sound of…“maaaaa.”

Despite that fall is considered fire season, Laguna’s four-legged form of fire protection, goats, got downsized late last year.

Due to record-breaking rains the previous December and the subsequent burst of greenery on the hills, the city had doubled the number of goats to 700.  Over the past year, however, they’ve adequately nibbled the overgrowth to the nibs, according to Fire Marshall Tom Christopher.  This year, the city decided one herd was enough and sent 350 billies, nannies and their kids packing.

“The number of herds fluctuates depending on the conditions,” said Christopher. “We typically operate with one herd.”  The city spends $125,000 a year leasing one herd and another $5,000 a month for each additional herd, said Fire Chief Kris Head. The remaining herder is on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and lives in a trailer that moves with the flocks.

The fewer the browsers the better, according to some local environmentalists who would rather see more mulching to reduce flammable grasses than more goats which prefer the tender tips of fire-resistant and slow-burning native shrubs and trees.  Goats browse on plants like deer rather than graze on grasses like roaming cattle and sheep, according to research.

“I look up and I see dead,” said local open-space enthusiast Lisa Marks, referring to the bare patches where goats have cleared hillsides. “The habitat’s gone.  There’s no life there if you like birds, bees and native plants.  Maybe one might even think those things are necessary for human survival in the long run.”

Both safety and nature conservation are legitimate values, she granted. Yet, a better response, she offered, might be to integrate strategic thinning and mulching rather than relying on munching goats. “You can annihilate all the habitat all around and there will still be a big fire risk,” Marks contends.

Some residents feel much safer, however, with the goats nearby.  “I’m for anything that clears a path around my house,” said Ketta Brown, who rebuilt her home overlooking Laguna Canyon on Skyline Drive after the 1993 firestorm. She has only one complaint:  “When your windows are open, you wake up a lot because they sound like your kids yelling, ‘Maaaaa.’ It’s the same sound your kids make when they’re little and you never get over that.”

But Brown said she’s willing to consider additional methods.  “I have no problem with goats doing what goats do,” she added.  “If there’s a way to make it more efficient or effective for native plants to thrive, maybe you can work together.”

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