“I must either command, or be silent!” -Napoleon in exile
When Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked on a deserted island he survived by catching wild goats to use for meat, milk, and hides. The story of Robinson Crusoe is fiction, but there’s nothing imaginary about the flocks of goats on the scattered islands of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The island goats weren’t native to the islands, they were feral—descended from the pairs of bucks and does that early Spanish and Portuguese sailors let loose as “shipwreck insurance,” so that non-fictional shipwrecked sailors could hope to wash up on an island where a familiar food source existed.
Since they had no natural predators on these remote, previously undiscovered oceanic islands, goat populations expanded exponentially, and they often turned lush deserted islands into desert islands by eating everything. For example, a Portuguese explorer named Jo o da Nova discovered an uninhabited, heavily timbered isle 1200 miles off the coast of Southwest Africa on the feast day of Saint Helen, May 21st , 1502. He named the island St. Helena, took on water, dropped off several goats, and sailed on.
The existence of St Helena was kept a secret by the Portuguese until 1588, when the British explorer, Cavendish, came across the island and made note of both the goats and the trees. Witnesses say there were still a lot of trees standing as late as 1716, but by the time the famous Corsican megalomaniac was exiled on St. Helena in 1815 the island’s native vegetation had been destroyed. Charles Darwin visited Longwood, Napoleon’s home on the island, in 1836 on the historic voyage of the Beagle. He wrote of St. Helena that, “Goats were introduced in 1502. Eighty-six years later, during the time of Cavendish, it is known they were exceedingly numerous. More than a century afterwards, in 1731, when the evil was irretrievable, an order was issued that all stray animals be destroyed.”
But goats don’t have to be destructive. At High Ground Farm in Watsonville goats are being used to help restore native California plant communities. Laura Kummerer, a grassland restoration specialist working for High Ground Farm, has borrowed fourteen of my goats to help her with her native range rehabilitation project. We released the goats at High Ground Farm last week, and their immediate task was to eat the introduced species like the annual Mediterranean grasses, wild mustard, wild radish, and orchard grass that infest what remains of the native Californian coastal grasslands. Eating these weeds comes naturally to goats—after all, the goats and these weeds all evolved together in the Old World.
Two hundred years ago the lands that now make up the fields and pastures of High Ground Farm were part of an intricate web of wet lands and prairies that ran along the shores of Monterey Bay. Elk grazed on the grasslands and deer browsed in the brush. Waterfowl nested in the reeds, and every manner of creature found a niche to exploit and enjoy. Near the top of the food chain, one rung under the Grizzly bear, communities of native Americans lived on the bluffs and took advantage of all the natural riches that the area had to offer.
The Spanish conquest changed everything. With guns at their disposal, the newcomers were equal to the Grizzly bears. Adios osos! The Native Americans were crowded into missions and lectured to about salvation in heaven. No one thought to listen to the Indians to find out if their long tenancy in California had taught them anything about how to live here— our ecological consciousness was still a long time off in the future. The Indians themselves were the first victims of an environment out of balance—many of them died from the diseases that the Spaniards had evolved with and adapted to. The herds of elk were slaughtered. The coastal prairie grasses were over-grazed by long horned Iberian cattle, and the native perennial bunch grasses gave way to the Mediterranean annual grasses that hitchhiked into California as sticker-burrs in the cows’ tails.
When the Americans came the oaks and redwoods were cut down, the fields were ploughed for farming, and the wetlands were drained. When I started farming in Watsonville the rich, peaty soil from the drained marshland was still being strip-mined by fertilizer companies and exported. Finally, and recently, much of what was once wetland habitat for a wide range of native species has been converted into housing subdivisions. But Santa Cruz County isn’t St. Helena Island. We’re not marooned. We’re not in exile, and there’s no palace of mirrors for us to return to. We’re here to make a permanent home, and we’re smart enough (I hope) to learn how to live here gracefully, and not comport ourselves like conquerors who would despoil their own prizes.
For some people the environmental changes of the past and present are of no concern. I have to admit that I’m not sad that the Grizzly bears aren’t prowling outside my door—taxonomists don’t call them Ursus horribilis for nothing. But as we become deeply acquainted with our environment we’re beginning to learn how all the different organisms work together to maintain a stable yet dynamic ecology. Get rid of the coyotes and the rodent populations surge out of control until bubonic plague brings them back in line. Get rid of the nesting areas and the birds that keep the mosquitos in check disappear. Get rid of the mosquitos with chemicals and the birds that depend on them for food disappear, plus a lot of other organisms get poisoned.
As farmers and consumers we’re learning to take responsibility for our actions. Organic farmers have a special role to play in redefining how society interacts with nature. As business people we understand that we can only farm organically if we can make money, but we also understand that not everything that’s of value can be easily quantified in terms of dollars. The checks and balances that count for survival aren’t only the ones at the bank. A healthy, diverse ecosystem where a natural matrix of pest and predator is an agricultural asset. The hawk that floats overhead the field isn’t merely a beautiful bird, it’s also the cheapest and most effective gopher trap a farmer can have.
The hawk needs a tree to nest in. And we need the hawk and the tree to add “interest” to our lives. Our lives are a gift from Mother Nature, and the intelligent thing to do is to show some respect to the old girl. There is so much to learn about how all the different species work together to weave a seamless web of life, but several things seem clear already. Diverse ecosystems are more stable, more resilient to temporary climatic fluctuations, and more beautiful than mono-cultures. We don’t stand outside of nature—we’re an integral part of it. We’re still evolving, and it’s not to late to change. With that sentiment in mind, a number of different groups in Watsonville are working together to restore the Monterey Bay wetlands.
The mining of the Watsonville peat bogs is history, and water is filling the wetlands again. At High Ground Farm seeds from the surviving native perennial bunch grasses have been collected from the pastures and grown out to replant and strengthen the remaining established stands. A handful of cattle have been brought into the pastures because, if properly managed, their grazing habits mimic those of the vanished elk. Native grasses evolved with ruminant grazing as a part of the equation, and they need grazing to thrive. My goats have been introduced because their browsing habits can be an effective control for the introduced Mediterranean weeds that are choking out the native California plants.
The goats got to work right away, wolfing down mustard blossoms like bar flies around a dish of salted peanuts. When the thatch of non-native weeds has been reduced from the rangeland, native wild flowers and native perennial grasses will have an easier time getting re-established. Laura Kummerer monitors the progress that the cows and goats make and moves the animals from paddock to paddock as necessary. When the goats have finished their work for the season they will return home to Mariquita Farm to resume their important “work” eating poison oak brush.
My father, Dr. James Griffin, was a research plant ecologist for the University Of California who did some of the pioneering studies on the re-establishment of native grass communities. His work thirty years ago, and that of his like minded peers, has inspired people like Laura to look at the inter-related issues of habitat management and animal husbandry in new ways. I grew up on a University field station, and as a kid I can remember all the enclosures my dad made around plots of native grasses to study the effects of grazing on regeneration, and I remember the controlled burns he conducted to understand the ways that perennial grasses depended on fire ecologies for survival. Then I grew up to raise goats.
My interest in raising goats may make me seem like an atavistic throwback to a stupider time, but I’m proud to be able to help Laura and contribute to the spirit of father’s work in my own way. And of course I’m proud of my goats for being so “ecologically sensitive” and “politically correct.” Goats are wonderful animals, and we can’t blame them for the deserts. Learning from our mistakes and making appropriate corrections in our behavior is a survival skill, and it’s the only real shipwreck insurance we’ve got.
Photos of Before and After the goats arrived
Photos of some native plants found at High Ground Organics
Goats may be great, but I blame them for creeping me out with their rectangle pupils. 🙂