Goats Rid Reading School of Poison Ivy

May 23, 2013

Until this year, the children who play in the field behind Reading Elementary School have been getting itchy—literally.

The playground borders a huge patch of poison ivy. But the weed has met its match.

Three goats are dining on it.

The goat project at tiny Reading Elementary grew from research conducted in Patricia Collins’s class of fifth-graders. There are only six students, but over the past year they filled a binder with information about how to solve the school’s poison ivy problem. 

Ten-year old Kit Oney says recess could be hazardous.

“This had been going on for 10 years and a lot of kids had been going into there and getting poison ivy. And whenever we were playing soccer or any other games and the ball went into the poison ivy, if you picked up the ball after that and it wasn’t washed, you could get poison ivy,” Oney explained.

So what to do? Spraying could harm the wetland habitat, and usually didn’t eradicate the weed anyway. But goats, the kids’ research showed, love to eat the stuff.

“They don’t get the poison ivy because they have an enzyme that breaks it down,” Kit Oney says she found out.

The students presented their findings at town meeting, getting a standing ovation. They brought in experts to show them which plants should be removed that might harm goats—turns out wild cherry trees aren’t good for them—and they borrowed three goats from a local resident.

They also snagged a grant to build a solar powered electric fence, which they move around, so that after the goats finish one patch, they can start on another one. That can be a little tricky though, as Kit and her classmate Nevaea Sullivan recalled.

“Whenever we move the fence from one pasture to the other they have always gotten out but we’ve always managed to get them and our teacher had to ride them and push them in,” Kit said, giggling.

“It was very funny to see our teacher riding one of the goats into the pasture…it was very funny” Nevaea said.

Funny only in retrospect, says teacher Patricia Collins. But she’s obviously very proud of her students for setting and meeting three important goals.

“And after they had put it through the analysis they decided that goats would be the most economical way to solve the problem, that it would involve the community in the solution and that it was an environmentally friendly solution that also had that goat factor to it,” Collins said.  

On a recent sunny morning she led them outside to visit “the goat factor” munching happily inside the electrified fence.

“So in this pasture that they’re on, I see no poison ivy right now,” she reported happily.

The goats—Izzy, Sadie, and Happy—will spend the warm weather months at Reading Elementary School indefinitely. The fifth-graders have been sharing weekend duty, checking and feeding the animals.

And they’ve received an award from Governor Peter Shumlin for environmental excellence. Fifth grader Sam Mitchell says they have been guided all along by a quote from anthropologist Margaret Mead.

“I think the quote was, ‘Never doubt that a group of  committed citizens can make a difference. Indeed it is the  only thing that ever has.’” Mitchell paraphrased.

Ms. Collins and her class will head to Washington on June 6 to accept a prestigious national award for their school’s sustainability efforts.