A working goat at Neary Lagoon.
A working goat at Neary Lagoon.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz.)

‘Way better than humans’: Santa Cruz Gardens neighborhood turns to goats for fire safety

Goats go anywhere, eat anything, make little noise and leave little trace — and make for a local attraction in the bargain. "(It) could not have made the neighborhood happier,” said a Santa Cruz Gardens resident whose environs are now better prepared for fire season.

Residents of the Benson Avenue and Benson Court developments in the Santa Cruz Gardens area have long dealt with a conundrum: Their properties neighbor a five-acre preserve, which is a boon most of the time. But when fire season approaches every year, they’ve struggled to find a way to clear vegetation and manage the fire risk.

“We [have] five acres of land that needed clearing and a lot of it’s on a slope,” Roger Reedy said Tuesday. “Landscapers were never able to do a good job because they can’t get good footing going down.”

Last year, residents hired a landscaping company to clear things out. But by the time the fires started in August, “things had grown back so much that we had to get a bunch of neighbors [to] volunteer to go up there for a day and hack away at everything to save our homes,” Reedy said.

This year, Reedy and his neighbor Jack Watson, both officers of the Benson Avenue Homeowners Association, proposed hiring a herd of goats instead. The proposal was approved by both HOAs in a 25-1 vote, and they contracted Living Systems Land Management to bring about 400 goats to the property.

Reedy said the goats were immediately a huge success — “could not have made the neighborhood happier.”

Not only were the goats extremely effective — the steep slope was no problem for them, and they “took everything down to the nub” — but also because they were a fun attraction. Reedy says the one neighbor who voted against the goats sent him a “very nice” email after they had been there, saying she “could not have been more wrong.”

Goats working in Santa Cruz Gardens.
Goats working in Santa Cruz Gardens.
(Roger Reedy)

“It became a neighborhood event for days,” Reedy said. “We even had a little traffic jam the first day because people started hearing about it and driving over.”

Jan Canaday, one of the co-owners of Living Systems, said her goats have worked frequently in Santa Cruz for years, often for general vegetation management, but are now increasingly being hired specifically for fire prevention. Between the goats’ voracious appetites and willingness to eat over rugged terrain, the only limiting factors for herds are often transportation — being able to drive trailers to a property — and being able to get a fence line around the area the herd is grazing.

“[Goats are] quieter than weed eaters; they can get into areas that people can’t get into,” Canaday said of why the goats are so popular. “They eat it, so there’s nothing left except a little pellet that fertilizes the ground. If you use a weed eater, you’re just putting the vegetation back down on the ground.”

Canaday’s goats were busy working Tuesday at Neary Lagoon near downtown and will also be doing fire prevention for several other homeowners in Santa Cruz. Nearby Santa Cruz High School has used goats to tame its hilly areas in years past, as has Soquel High, among other spots.

Reedy said he can’t recommend them highly enough. “They’re these cute, adorable animals,” he said, “and most importantly, they got the job done way better than humans could have done it.”

Goats at work in Neary Lagoon.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)