SANTA CRUZ — Nearly 100 goats grazed behind the electric fence at the Graniterock Company. in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Baby, a great Pyrenees and Anatolian shepherd mix, rested under a clump of coyote brush, her two 2-month-old puppies wrestling nearby.
Behind the bucolic scene, serious work was taking place. The goats, protected from predators by Baby and her pups, were gobbling up nonnative species, the first step in a project to transform a former sand quarry into native California grassland.
Alex Simons, an environmental specialist for quarry owners Graniterock, envisions a day in the not-too-distant future when California wild oats, purple needlegrass and blue wild rye will wrest the ground from the invasive orchard grass.
"Having more natives increases wildlife habitat, native bird habitat," Simons said.
When the company closed the sand mine in the late 1990s, the area was seeded with an erosion control mix that included non-native grasses, Simons said. That was the best practice at the time, but native species are preferred these days, she said.
Graniterock could have mowed the six flat acres surrounded by steep slopes, but Simons said she decided to bring in goats after using them to clear a pond overgrown with tule to improve habitat for red-legged frogs last October. This spring, she said, native lupine and carex sprouted from the track the herd followed around the pond.
Simons put the goats to work on the present project before the non-natives produced seeds. After a couple of seasons of grazing, she hopes to wipe out the invasive species.
She's also gathered native seeds from other areas of the property. Some she's planted in small pots to plug into the cleared land in the fall. The rest she's used to seed the ground before and during the grazing.
The goats not only provide the room for the natives to grow, she said, but also press the native seeds into the soil and supply fertilizer to nourish their growth.
Ben Long, owner of Livestock Landscape Solutions of La Honda, Calif., said each goat consumes about 15 pounds a day. They'll eat everything, unlike cattle, which are more picky.
Boer goats make up the bulk of his herd, but he also has angora, Nubian, Spanish and kiko goats.
Every couple of days or so, Long moves the portable electric fencing to a new location. He rarely has to supplement the herd's food.
Baby keeps them safe, Long said. She's bonded to the herd so she stays close, and her bark and scent keep predators at bay, Long said.
Keith Seversen, Graniterock marketing director, said the system has enabled the Watsonville-based company to meet mine reclamation requirements in an environmentally sensitive way.
"Concern for the environment, not just in our company but in general, has grown," he said. "This is the right way to do it."