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Hundreds of Marin County residents have been thrilled to find a unique reason to venture outside and break the monotony of sheltering in place.

They’re spilling from their homes in social-distancing lengths and masks to watch 1,200 vegetation-clearing goats. In the process, they’re helping keep the critters on roadways, out of gardens and off lawns — cheery about animals shrinking fire risk while devouring overgrowth.

In San Anselmo, one herd of 400 began at Robson-Harrington Park, a stone’s throw from Town Hall, and munched their way through Laurel Canyon, then traveled to the Hawthorne Canyon open space.

A shepherd guides goats through San Anselmo street. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the shepherds arrived from Peru on work visas, but now they come from many different locations. (Photo by Chloe O’Loughlin)

Homeowner Sharon Bluhm found it “cool and exciting” to watch them arrive in trucks and to see onlookers stop meanderers from nibbling leaves on non-targeted trees. 

Another homeowner, Cristol Barrett O’Loughlin, exclaimed, “How wonderful to witness multiple generations of residents, from babies to teenagers to senior citizens, marveling at the bleating cacophony of 400 goats! Never have I seen our community unify in such an odd way with such an important purpose, making our hillside fire-safe.”

Rich Shortall — Sleepy Hollow resident, ex-San Francisco assistant deputy fire chief and executive coordinator of FIRESafe MARIN, which oversees the project — explained that the goats “clear ridgetops and create shaded fuel breaks and, around homes, defensible space.”

Lindsey McLorg of the Bald Hill Firewise Community steering committee said they are hopeful the area can ultimately return to its natural, non-overgrown state of 100 years ago.

The herds have already been used in Marin for three years in a five-year process, starting in Sleepy Hollow. They are also a presence in Lucas Valley, Terra Linda, Fairfax and the Ross Valley School District. 

Shortall confirmed San Domenico School’s campus as a test venue. “One herd there has sheep mixed in with it because they eat the grasses down even more.”  

The goats have four-chambered stomachs that let them digest tough roughage like shrubs, leaves and shoots. Because they don’t eat dead vegetation, however, other removal efforts are needed. 

Rich Shortall, FIRESafe MARIN’s executive coordinator, watches goats with his grandkids though portable fence at Robson-Harrington Park. (Photo courtesy of FIRESafe MARIN)

While “working,” they are contained by a portable, solar-powered electric fence that’s moved daily by herders.

The goats aren’t cheap. 

Yearly rental costs hit between $400,000 and $500,000. Funding comes from the Sleepy Hollow Fire Protection District, big property owners such as the Marin County Open Space District and Rocking H and Triple C ranches, and property taxes. 

Each herd has at least one 24/7 shepherd who sleeps in a portable trailer-camper. In the past, the shepherds hailed from Peru and arrived on work visas, but now, with COVID-19 restrictions, they come from a variety of places.

Every herd also has a white guard dog to repel coyotes and mountain lions (“no animals have been lost to predators”) and, typically, three herding dogs.

Although some street help from residents is welcomed, no volunteers are utilized when grazing is underway “because the work is very specialized,” Shortall said. “You have to know what you’re doing.”

Regardless, rubberneckers “pet the goats and ask the shepherds their names.” The answer is, they’re nameless.

More important, Shortall insists, is recognizing the project is “our taxpayer dollars at work in a visible way, a way we don’t normally see.”