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Goats chew their way through invasive Brazilian pepper trees in Indian River County

Tyler Treadway
Treasure Coast Newspapers
Walton Sun

INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — How do Brazilian pepper tree leaves taste?

Not "ba-a-a-a-ad," say goats blissfully munching on sprigs of the invasive plant.

"They love this stuff," said Steven Slatem of Melbourne, founder and chief executive manager of Invasive Plant Eradicators, as he chopped down a pepper tree limb with a machete and gave it to waiting goats. "It's their favorite."

His company has a $24,000 contract with Indian River County to use his goats to help clear invasive plants, pepper trees in particular. Among the many benefits, it cuts down on the use of chemical weed killers that can pollute water and harm the environment.

St. Lucie County is watching to see if goats are a good alternative before considering whether to follow suit, and Martin County is concerned about goats eating native plants.

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Indian River County has the goats working on two conservation areas: South Prong Slough west of Wabasso and Cypress Bend Community Preserve near Roseland.

Both are former groves where invasive plants are replacing citrus trees faster than native species such as oak, maple, cypress and sabal palm trees can grow.

The pepper trees are a scourge on Florida's environment, pushing out native species on over 700,00 acres throughout the state, including sensitive habitats such as mangrove swamps along Everglades marshes and the Indian River Lagoon.

Because the Cypress Bend site has several gopher tortoises that could benefit from more native plants, the project there is funded in part by a Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission grant.

Brazilian pepper trees

The Indian River County Conservation Lands program deployed the goats at South Prong Slough in October for a six-month project and at Cypress Bend in November for eight months.

They're part of an invasive pest management system that also includes mechanical removal and herbicides.

"It will take some time to determine whether or not the goat deployment is assisting with the restoration process and how cost effective it is," Beth Powell, the county's assistant director of Parks and Conservation Resources, said in a prepared statement. "We have to look at this over a period of time, watch the native species recruitment and evaluate success and failure."

The county also expects to use tiny insects, called thrips, which University of Florida researchers are beginning to release to control pepper trees, when they're available.

St. Lucie County doesn't have plans to use goats yet, said spokesperson Erick Gill

"However, our Environmental Resources (Department) staff has been talking with Indian River County officials to see how effective that program is to see if it can be replicated here," he said.

Goats may be effective in areas dominated by invasive vegetation, but Martin County's conservation lands have mostly native species, said Deputy Public Works Director Jim Gorton.

Using goats there could "result in non-targeted damages to native plants," he said, "which is counterproductive to our habitat restoration mission."

Hungry all the time season

There are 10 goats at each site: all males at South Prong Slough and all females — plus four adorable kids — at Cypress Bend. Separating the genders helps keep the goats focused on the task at hand: eating invasives.

"Ten goats can clear about an acre a month," Slatem said of other areas of the country. "But I've found that here, five goats can do it."

Each site is about 50 acres, and the goats are working on about half of each. But it's not a matter of simply letting the goats loose to graze; the job requires working together.

The goats chew up pepper tree leaves and other invasive species, such as Caesar weed, while Slatem uses his machete to bring down the foliage that goats can't reach.

"They're hungry all the time," he said. "I can work three or four hours cutting limbs, and when I come back in the morning, it's all gone."

Beware of the berries

A relative of poison ivy, the bushy pepper trees have similarly toxic sap. Just touching the leaves can give people allergic reactions and respiratory problems.

Most native wildlife don't eat the plants' leaves or berries, which can have narcotic and toxic effects on animals, especially birds, which can appear drunk after eating them. Birds also spread the seeds in their droppings.

None of that is a problem for the goats, Slatem said. Toxins in the plants "don't affect the goats," he said. "The plants are a healthy and nutritious food source for them."

In fact, he suspects it helps protect them from parasites.

Goats don't eat the berries, "so they're not spreading the plants around with the seeds passing through them like birds do," he said.

Speaking of "passing through," goats' dry, pellet-sized droppings are a minimal mess for people walking through the area.

The goats are actually "contributing clean, high-quality fertilizer" to the sites, he said.

Tyler Treadway is an environment reporter who specializes in issues facing the Indian River Lagoon. Support his work on TCPalm.com. Contact him at 772-221-4219 and tyler.treadway@tcpalm.com.

This story originally published to tcpalm.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.