A Socratic Rancher 11-2-09
In my day as a child, long, long ago, vacant lots were playgrounds, places we imagined ourselves on a desert island, played football or baseball, and snuck a kiss with our sweetheart after dark. If there was a tree on the lot, so much the better for fantasies. Today, however, kids have been restrained from vacant lots, and not just because these untended areas are known to tear up a pair of $60 blue jeans. No, during the architectural explosion of the new millennium, vacant lots didn’t have much of a chance, and the few that managed to escape the developer’s crew, were restricted due to concerns about liability, attractive nuisance, and wandering deviants.
When the economic downturn of 2008 came along, vacant lots returned to the landscape, but, sadly, kids did not return to the vacant lots. The result is vacancies in the urban landscape overgrown with weeds, a situation that can challenge mechanized mowing on uneven terrain. Little, if any, genius is required to see that this is a situation custom made for goats.
I’ve seen enterprising goat keepers in several cities on the Front Range using goats to control raging vegetation on both industrial and residential lots, and being paid to do it. The goat-weeding operations provide the basics of water and shade, using orange plastic netting between electric fence posts to confine the goats. The goats must then clean up the weeds in the immediate confinement before being allowed to move on. I ran into a goat herder in Denver, who was running about 150 goats of various sexes and sizes in an industrial ghost town several months ago. I asked him why the goats didn’t just jump over the fence. A 3-foot plastic fence is really no obstacle to a goat.
“They don’t wander over fences when there’s lots of them,” the herder explained with a smile.
I found this very interesting, and though there are obvious hazards in analyzing the mind of a goat, I couldn’t resist making up a theory. It is this: goats in herds of, say, 100 or more dissipate much of their curiosity on each other, whereas in a herd of, say, 15 or less, the goats soon learn all there is to know about the other goats in their mutual captivity, becoming progressively bored and more curious about the possibility of other, substantially more interesting goats beyond the fence, or corral – a case of Familiarity breeds curiosity.
In a large herd, on the other hand, not only are there lots of goats to get to know, which takes time, and not only that, in the time that passes, the personalities of individual goats are going through changes. Just when a goat thinks he or she knows a certain other goat through casual acquaintance, that certain goat might actualize into an entirely different goat. A goat who was formerly friendly may have become frequently ferocious, a goat who preferred only alfalfa may have come to favor orchard grass with a dash a fescue, or a goat who never joined the others at the water tank may now be a bleating heart at the trough.
In a large herd, no amount of socializing with other goats can provide proof against surprise. In other words, a goat in a large herd can never be sure about the changing nature of his or her companions until “walking a mile in their hoofprints,” which keeps them inside the fence.
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I want to address a couple of issues in this week’s editor’s note.