RALEIGH, N.C. — What do you do with a tenacious foreign invader that grows a foot a day and threatens to suffocate the entire South?
For goats at least, the answer is plain: chew on it.
Until cool weather presaged the fall livestock auctions last week, a herd of 20 goateed "girls" - including Nibbler, Suki, and Layla - chewed to their hearts' content through a forest of kudzu on the campus of North Carolina State University, pulling down the unruly Japanese vines and devouring leaves, stems, and roots as though they were a Thursday night special at the local diner.
Having taken root in an area the size of New Hampshire and coveting another 120,000 acres each year, kudzu - innocently imported from Japan 127 years ago - is now an official enemy of state.
As a result, the iron-jawed goat has found its niche in a South that's looking for a hero to fight the creeping, tenacious, broad-leafed invader.
"Goats have gotten a bad rap over centuries," says Jean-Marie Luginbuhl, a North Carolina State agronomist who sponsored this summer's "Goat Invasion 2003" on campus. "But if you understand the way goats browse, you can really use them in a very positive way."
Employing goats to clear woodlands is not the newest trick in the book. But thanks to emerging research on their browsing habits - as well as vastly improved portable fences to hold them in - goats are slowly gaining acceptance as environmentally friendly "bio-agents" that fight noxious vines at their root.
And they're palatable beyond their pruning prowess: Researchers are hoping that the use of goats for kudzu control may coincide with the South's growing market for goat meat - a result of the immigration of Hispanics, Indians, and other goat-eating people into the area.
Raising goats "is just coming into the clear because of a shift in the population dynamics - and goat consumption is part of that changing demographic," says Errol Rhoden, who studies goats at Alabama's Tuskegee University.
Introduced as a porch shade for Southern gents and ladies, kudzu has spread like the weed it is, reaching as far north as New York and as far west as Illinois.
After being brought from Japan to the 1876 Centennial Expo in Philadelphia, kudzu quickly took over - helped in the 1930s by the government paying farmers as much as $8 an acre to plant it to combat soil erosion. But soon the servant became the master. In 1997, the federal government reversed its stance on kudzu, calling it a "noxious weed" to be fought at every turn. Now, draped like verdant shawls across power poles and pine trees, American kudzu is a weed of forests and fence rows, roadsides and rights of way.
"If you look at the nutrient value [of kudzu], it's excellent," says Mr. Rhoden. "The problem is it does not normally stay where we want it to grow."
Despite the warnings, most kudzu is left alone - only to expand steathily. Today, it's usually only roadways that are cleared, with expensive - and often ineffective - herbicides. Says Mr. Luginbuhl: "If kudzu is just invading property, not much is done about it."
But that thinking is slowly changing, especially as farmers and landowners increasingly see goats as a reasonable way to solve the kudzu problem - and as the government insists that they do so.
In several western Alabama counties, farmers are using herds of goats to clear kudzu-covered pastures. In the North Carolina mountains, landowners use goats to clear another annoying Japanese invader: multiflora roses. In Wilmington, N.C., the city's public-works department uses goats to clear overgrown railroad tracks.
Although it has just a few plots of kudzu , Missouri just made it a law that landowners must eradicate kudzu or face up to a year in jail. One Missouri man has put 35 goats to work on his vines to comply.
And what of the temptation to sell kudzu-fattened goats at auction? "I don't see people doing this as much to make money, but it's so inexpensive to start a herd, that it's starting to catch on," says Bill Knox, manager of the Small Ruminant Educational Unit at N.C. State.
Here on campus, the herd moved between three browsing plots, easily taking not only ground cover, but chewing through vines that were well over 40 feet tall. Nibbler, Suki, and Layla were sold last week to a couple of Raleigh landowners who needed their kudzu-munching services. But next year, they'll be back.
"They're gregarious," says Mr. Knox. "And they really are tremendous browsers."