By Tanya Silverman
Photo courtesy of Pete Markham.
Gnarly brush and invasive bushes cluster the land around greater Seattle. Big boulders and steep cliffs make it difficult to break into the entanglement of flora.
How can landowners effectively clear their properties of these problems? Must they hire others to tackle it using expensive, polluting machinery, and deal with the unpleasant ruckus it entails?
“BAAAA!” is the subtle sound of a strange solution, amidst some quiet chomping.
Rent a Ruminant LLC is a sustainable service that brings goats to eat away unwanted vegetation. Owner Tammy Dunakin acts as Head Goat Wrangler. She has over 100 goats, which are mostly rescues and of different breeds and sizes. The bigger goats reach tall branches while the little ones get into the nitty-gritty.
Wranglers scale the outdoor spaces so they can then fence off sections for goats to safely get to work. The animals munch around municipal buildings, corporate parks, private properties, schools, and other set-ups. A recent Rent a Ruminant endeavor included transporting goats to Indian Island to clear the fields of Scotch Broom for the Navy.
A noticeable number of Himalayan Blackberry bushes thrive around the Pacific Northwest region, but even if humans enjoy harvesting the fruit, the plant is still an invasive species. That may be a thorny issue for gardeners and landscapers, but it’s one where hungry goats just so happen to come in handy.
“They love blackberries. The pricklier, the better,” says Dunakin. “I don’t know how they do it, but it’s the mystery of goats.”
Goats also eat poison oak and poison ivy, but since such plants aren’t a huge problem in the Pacific Northwest, Dunakin does not receive many calls for them. Only primates, she explains, are allergic to the plants, so the goats can eat them fine; the herders have to decontaminate the animals afterwards to get the oils off their fur.
Dunakin implements an innovative publicity campaign to advertise her goats around urban and suburban settings: goats.
“I call it ‘goats out of context,’” she describes the surprised reaction people show. They tend to pause, check out the goats, chat about them, then maybe bring by their families, or ask their neighbors about the process.
Laborers are treated kindly at Rent a Ruminant.
“My number one priority is keeping my goats happy and healthy,” Dunakin says. “I never slaughter my animals. They get retired when they can’t work any longer.”
And goats aren’t the only animal whose daily habits are available for rent. After all, there are plants that need pollination–a task for which goats aren’t quite as useful.
“I supply my gear and my bees,” Conner tells BTR. “They have the bees pollinate on their property.”
Conner sets up these systems for parties who want to use her as a mentor to later raise bees independently, as well as for those who are busy with their gardens and other livestock, but still want to host bees for pollination. In return for her maintenance, she harvests the honey–though often, no yield comes until the second or third year bees are in place.
Keeping a viable bee colony for honey and pollination requires more than just setting a up a hive. Conner says that she has to determine if there is enough forage for the insects to thrive. Also, there is land capacity to consider, and the bees must not conflict with other honey hives or native pollinators in the vicinity. City ordinances also have to be followed to make sure that honeybees don’t bug the neighbors.
Hosting honeybee hives, Conner explains, is effective in raising awareness of Colony Collapse Disorder.
“I view the hive as an educational tool,” says Conner. “People see bees in their neighbor’s yard and it opens up a whole new dialog around honeybee health and why they’re important to us.”
Conner adds that in addition to what she does, she is pleased to see locals are starting to host Mason Bees, pollinators native to the region.
A Mason Bee. Photo courtesy of Jon Roberts.
“Mason bees do not have a queen, they do not live in a hive, and they do not make honey,” Anderson tells BTR.
A bee educator, Anderson is a speaker at the Master Gardeners of Kings County. She is quick to unravel her ample knowledge about biological behavior of the Northwestern native species. All female Mason Bees are fertile, she explains, so each one lays eggs, and there is no hierarchy to protect.
These bees naturally thrive in wood. They are also non-aggressive; Anderson says she was only stung once, which was barely painful. She cites studies from bee labs in Utah that have determined their venom to be benign.
Each Seattle Spring–when the sun finally starts to shine after months of rain–Anderson offers Mason Bee rental kits around the area, which consists of a custom-designed box, bees (cocoons), and nesting materials. For 2014, there are about 300 installations. Her operations are small-scale and affordable, mostly provided for private property owners.
“If the individual has a good crop, such as an apple or pear tree, they will notice an increase production of food,” she says. “But I do remind all of my clients–and any visitor to a class–that you do not have to have a food crop to be a Mason Bee farmer… you could have a maple tree, a field of dandelions, or native plants like Mahonia and candy tuft.”
Come October, it’s time for Anderson to clean and sanitize the boxes, wash the cocoons, and take them back home. She stores the bees in refrigeration at a specific temperature and humidity level. They stay sheltered until the following Spring season; even if there are a few breaks of warm days from Seattle’s stretches of wet coolness, Mason Bees die if they break out prematurely, as there are no blossomed plants they can utilize.
In the midst of buzzes and baaas, integrative urban ecology subsists when humans and animals work together to engage and maintain the land that hosts their species.