A little white goat, just three days old, sits napping in the late afternoon sun. Another larger goat stretches its hind legs. Others feed on the hay they had been waiting for expectantly. A kid (the scientific name for a baby goat) leaps over the fence as Scott Morris, owner of the herd, straddles the small barrier holding a bottle of milk.
Two and a half years ago, Scott Morris knew nothing about goats. Today, he heads 805 Goats, a business that hires out goats to clear hillsides for fire prevention.
The idea came to him while he was participating in Toastmasters, an international speaking forum.
“In my local chapter at Toastmasters, I had the Ventura County Fire Chief. And, for years, he’d complain about lack of supply of goats in this specific area for goat grazing, for fire clearance,” says Morris. “That kind of started a research project,” he says — and the rest is history.
Morris hires out his herd from March through November to clear hillsides of vegetation for fire prevention. They travel anywhere from Hidden Hills to Santa Barbara.
“We really need at least three to four acres at minimum for it to be worth our while to go out because it is pretty labor-intensive. We do have to cut a fence line and set up fencing and haul water and all the other fun stuff,” Morris says.
His herd, 150 goats strong, can defoliate an acre in 1.5 to 2 days.
“We have fencing up around the goats at any particular job site that we go to, and that sets up their paddock if you will. And that’s what they stay contained within to eat,” Morris explains. “Then, as they eat through that vegetation, we build another paddock and another and another until we’re finished with the job.”
A goat’s appetite for almost any vegetation makes it the ideal candidate for the job. The grass may reach waist height, but they reduce it to nothing.
“There’s really nothing left on the ground once the goats are there,” Morris says. “The fire department likes the goats because they consume from the flower and seed down,” which keeps the plants from re-germinating.
In addition to the roughly 2.5 bales of hay a day and the occasional grain supplement the herd consumes, a goat’s diet requires copper. Morris provides the goats with essential minerals via mineral blocks placed throughout the pen. His goats also munch on a mound of Christmas trees, a natural dewormer.
The goats crowd Morris as he steps over the fence carrying hay. They follow him closely, and little groups stay behind, eating each time he drops a handful of hay. Some goats drop down on their leathery, specially-padded knees to eat their meal.
Morris knows a goat is happy and healthy if his coat shines and his tail wags. Though goats generally have a liberal diet, Morris says mushrooms and avocados are a fatal snack.
Goats bear anywhere from two to four kids a year. Mother goats can only care for two kids at a time, so any additional offspring are orphaned. Morris feeds the orphaned goats from a bottle. Woody, one of the orphans, energetically finishes his bottle of milk and reaches straight for the soda in Morris’s hand. The company’s livestock trailer functions as the 805 Goats nursery.
Morris’s herd of goats are heroes in disguise. Two years ago, when the fires threatened to take the Ronald Reagan Library, it was the goats’ work that kept it standing.
“The fire burned right up to where the goats ate, and then there was just nothing but dirt, so the fire couldn’t burn any further,” Morris says.
When the goats are not on the job, Morris keeps them at La Reina High School, the company’s home base. In exchange for boarding, the goats keep the hillside fireproof. A team of three — Morris, his wife and a herder — tend to the goats. “The herder is generally here throughout the day and then sleeps out with the goats to just make sure that everything’s buttoned-up, and cuts the next fence line and gets everything ready to go,” says Morris.
On the La Reina High School hillside, the goats eat, rest and plan their escape.
“Goats spend their whole lives trying to escape. They are escape artists,” says Morris. “When they get out, they literally just want to go to the other side. And then you whistle, and they all come right back. … They know they’re not supposed to get out, but they love doing it.”
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