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Curious Louis meets the goats who are waging war on invasive bush honeysuckle

Dipstick the goat chomps away on honeysuckle at Willoughby Heritage Farm in Collinsville. April 2017
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio
Dipstick the goat chomps away on honeysuckle at Willoughby Heritage Farm in Collinsville.

“What can we do about the massive spread of bush honeysuckle? It spreads greatly and destroys ground-level wildflowers.”

That was the question the Rev. James Brobst of Belleville recently put to Curious Louis.

Brobst said his question was prompted by the changes he’s noticed in woodlands along the Mississippi River bluffs near Godfrey, Ill.  Brobst, 57, grew up in the Alton area and remembers what those woods looked like before honeysuckle took over.

“My parents taught me as a kid what these plants were — and the flowers and birds and whatnot. We grew up knowing what should be there,” said Brobst, who is a priest in residence at the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows in Belleville.

Bush honeysuckle plants are not native to the United States but were introduced in the late 1800s for landscaping and erosion control. But conservationists warn that honeysuckle is now out of control and choking out native trees and plants.

Unlike native honeysuckle, which is a vine, invasive honeysuckles are thick bushes that can grow up to 20 feet in height. You’ll find bush honeysuckle in parks and wooded areas, along trails and roadways — and sometimes in your own backyard.

The bushes are easy to spot in the spring because they’re the first plants to turn green and leaf out, and they stay green longer than native plants in the fall. Bush honeysuckle has white to yellow flowers in the spring and red or orange berries in the fall.

Conservationists don’t mince words when it comes to the evils of honeysuckle. They’ve declared war on the invasive plant.  

The Missouri Department of Conservation has web pages devoted to eradicating it and a brochure titled “Curse of the Bush Honeysuckles” that urges residents to “kill these invaders in your yard, parks and woodlots.”

Great Rivers Greenway refers to bush honeysuckle as an “enemy of the state”  and has produced a “Say No to Honeysuckle” video that sounds like a political attack ad.

Volunteers are also stepping forward to participate in “sweep weeks” at local parks, where they remove honeysuckle by hand.

And at Maryville University in St. Louis and Willoughby Heritage Farm in Collinsville, they’re trying a more novel approach: Goats.

Jim Ruggles' goats will be at Maryville University for the honeysuckle project on April 21.
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

The  trouble with honeysuckle

Honeysuckle is on the list of invasive plants in both Missouri and Illinois, where it’s doing to woodland flowers and trees what Asian carp is doing to Mississippi River fish: crowding them out.

“It comes up first in the spring, and it shades out everything else and steals the light and then grows very fast and very aggressively,’’ said Kyra Krakos, an assistant professor of biology at Maryville University. “It becomes a monoculture. Or, basically, the only thing that’s growing in an area. That doesn’t give a lot of food sources for wildlife. It means that native plants don’t grow. It disrupts the ecosystem and also damages the watershed.’’

If you notice a wall of green in the woods early in the spring, it’s probably honeysuckle, Krakos said.

“You can see honeysuckle, literally, strangling other trees,’’ she said. “And one wall of anything is not good. Monocultures don’t work. You always want to have diversity.’’

Bush honeysuckle is an invasive plant that is choking out native species in Missouri and Illinois.
Missouri Department of Conservation

Honeysuckle wins when it competes with native plants for moisture, nutrients and pollination.

“It’s not as fast as kudzu, which is the vine that ate the South. But it is a danger to our ecosystem,” Krakos said.

Honeysuckle berries attract birds, which spread the plant.

“Birds will eat honeysuckle, and that’s why you have to manage honeysuckle year after year after year,’’ Krakos said. “You can get rid of it, and it will come back, mostly because of birds. They love to eat the fruits and then spread them around. And they’re not a great food source for birds. It’s like a steady diet of junk food. They like it, but it’s not healthy.’’

So, how do you get rid of honeysuckle?

It isn’t easy.

The Missouri Department of Conservation says small honeysuckle plants have a shallow root system and can be pulled by hand.

For large bushes, use the cut-stump or stem method: Cut the stems as close to the ground as possible and then apply a herbicide. Or, dig out the roots, using a shovel or pick axes.

Or, you can get a goat, Krakos said.

And she’s not kidding.

Goats at Jim Ruggles' farm in Eldred, Ill., devour a branch of honeysuckle. (April 2017)
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

When honeysuckle gets your goat

Goats Week, which is the week of April 16 this year, is the highlight of Maryville University’s Honeysuckle Sustainability Project, an annual event put on by biology students. Goats will be on campus on April 21 doing what they like to do: Eating honeysuckle.

Krakos said the goats offer a unique approach to getting rid of honeysuckle, while raising awareness about invasive species that are damaging the ecosystem.

School children watch the goats at last year's Goat Week on the Maryville University campus in St. Louis. 2016
Maryville University

“This is an education-focused event in which we showcase creative ways to weed honeysuckle and get rid of it. There are lots of options for managing your ecosystem,’’ Krakos said. “And people love the goats. They love to come down and see them and watch them eat the honeysuckle. And when they do that, we also educate them about the importance of getting rid of invasive species.”

Like many campuses with wooded acreage, Maryville has been invaded by honeysuckle. Krakos has aerial photos taken around 1994 that show the campus free of honeysuckle.

“By 1996 it is solid honeysuckle,’’ she said. “So, we can pinpoint the time of invasion and how quickly it overtook it.’’

Krakos says timing is the key to using goats to do your weeding.

“When the honeysuckle comes up, you have about a 10-day to two-week window before the other plants get going. And that’s when you bring your goats,’’ she said.

Adam Wilson, 27, a senior at Maryville, says the goats attract a lot of attention and help raise awareness. He’s president of Green Maryville, a club that promotes sustainability on campus.

“We have people all the time asking, ‘When are the goats coming out?’ ‘’ he said.

Jim Ruggles on his farm in Eldred, Ill. April 2017
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

The goats are provided by Jim Ruggles, who works as an agent for a trucking transportation company in Collinsville but keeps a herd of goats on his farm in Eldred, Illinois, about 70 miles north of St. Louis.

Ruggles says his goats eat feed and hay, and love day-old bread. But given the chance, they’ll devour bush honeysuckle. And it’s that craving that earned them their admission to college.

“They’re there to eat bush honeysuckle and show you how much they like to eat bush honeysuckle,’’ he said. “They like any kind of bitter leaf. They like poison ivy, the bush honeysuckle. They like leaves after they’ve fallen off the tree that are browned out. So if you look in their outside pen, there’s almost no leaves on the ground because they eat all the leaves.’’

Krakos acknowledges that using goats to eat honeysuckle isn’t a viable option for most people. In some states, like Indiana, Texas and California, there are goat rental companies for brush clearing, but in the St. Louis area, it helps to know a farmer.

Carol Frerker, supervisor of Willoughby Heritage Farm in Collinsville with Goldie, who's been on honeysuckle duty this spring. April 2017
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio

That’s the case at Willoughby Heritage Farm and Conservation Reserve, which is owned by the Collinsville Area Recreation District. The farm rents goats from a local farmer to help control invasive plants on its acreage, something it’s been doing for 12 years.

Supervisor Carol Frerker says the goats have made a huge difference. Some areas at the farm were so inundated with honeysuckle that she wasn't  concerned that the goats would destroy desirable plants.

“We didn’t have to worry that, ‘Oh, let’s make sure they don’t eat this plant or that plant.’ We just said, 'Go for it,' ’’ Frerker said. “Where we’re standing you couldn’t even walk through it.”

To demonstrate how it all works, Frerker led a goat named Dipstick down a steep slope into a thicket of honeysuckle. Dipstick waded in and began chewing as though he hadn’t just been fed handfuls of feed by youngsters visiting the farm.

Frerker says the goats are also popular with guests.

“It’s not only great for the environment, but it’s fun,’’ she said. “Goats are fun animals.”

Some resources:

* The Missouri Botanical Garden has produced the brochure “Got honeysuckle? Get rid of it,” which is available on its website. It has also developed BioDiverseCity St. Louis, a network of organizations and individuals in the region working together on conservation projects.

* The Missouri Department of Conservation website has photos and descriptions of honeysuckle plants and a downloadable brochure.

* Maryville University’s annual Goat Week will feature goats on April 21. The public is invited to watch the goats devour honeysuckle from 8 a.m. to noon.  

* The organization Science Teachers of Missouri invites people to visit its website to log the number of honeysuckle plants they’ve removed. They’ve already passed their  goal of 1 million plants.

Follow Mary Delach Leonard on Twitter: @marydleonard

Willoughby Heritage Farm in Collinsville has been renting goats for 12 years to help clear invasive plants like honeysuckle from its acreage. April 2017
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Public Radio