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January 13, 2010 > Grazing animals beneficial to all

Grazing animals beneficial to all

By Alissa Gwynn
Photos By courtesy of East Bay Regional Park District

It's not unusual to see cattle, sheep, or goats roaming the land at Coyote Hills or Ardenwood Historic Farm. However, many people don't realize that these grazing animals are essential for maintaining habitat conditions for many plants and animals and preventing wildfires. In fact, Ron Gartland, vegetation management specialist for the East Bay Regional Park District, says, "California's vegetation evolved under grazing. Prehistoric grazers were adapted to browsing and we're trying to mimic the natural ecology at the parks."

By grazing on grasses at East Bay Parks, animals help prevent the buildup of thatch, or grassland, over years. This creates a healthy ecosystem where non-native plants are controlled and desirable plants can thrive and coexist with them. In addition to wildlife benefits, grazing is beneficial for the aesthetics of the parks; because so many visitors frequent the parks, grazing is helpful by preventing the grasses from growing too long and interfering with public enjoyment of nature.

Although most grazing occurs in early spring and summertime when fire prevention is the primary concern, winter grazing occurs as well to reduce costs and allow areas that otherwise would have been left untouched to be controlled. By allowing animals to graze in the winter, the park is able to graze for nearly half the price per acre as they would without the winter grazing.

The animals, which the East Bay Regional Park District rents from Goats R Us or private tenants, are more efficient and less labor intensive than mowing the thousands of acres that comprise the park district. Depending on the specific area, says Gartland, either goats, sheep, or cattle (because of each of their distinct grazing style) are transported from park to park and penned to avoid disturbing park visitors.

Although the animals are generally docile to campers, and other park visitors, grazing has small disadvantages especially in the wintertime, when cattle like to use the hiking trails. Hikers should be wary of uneven paths and excess cow manure. However, as a whole, families and children interact well with the cattle and enjoy seeing them in the park.

So next time you visit one of the district's parks and see cattle grazing, be appreciative of the work they are doing to keep the environment safe and sound!

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