Prove your humanity

This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of our stories here

Hillary Steffes has nothing but glowing things to say about her coworkers.

“They’re very nice and friendly,” she said. “It’s nice to tag team projects with them.”

To be clear, some of her coworkers have hooves – Steffes is the chief goat herder for Allegheny GoatScape.

“Yes, that is my title,” she said with a laugh.

LISTEN to the story

Allegheny GoatScape is one of several goatscaping organizations across Pennsylvania using goats as landscapers thanks to their ability to scale steep hills and eat plants that shouldn’t be there.

For the past six years, Allegheny GoatScape has been working with Friends of South Side Park in Pittsburgh to clear out acres of dense invasive plants, mostly knotweed and porcelain berry, which have kept parts of the park, located in the South Side Slopes neighborhood, from being enjoyed by the public. Volunteers come in after the goats are finished to pull up invasive roots and plant new native species. 

The Friends of Southside Park has been diligent in slowly but surely beating back the invasives and then planting native trees in their place,” Gavin Deming said, executive director of Allegheny GoatScape. 

It’s not an easy process, as the invasive plants are extremely difficult to get rid of. Deming said the best part about working on South Side Park has been seeing the progression of beating back the invasive species, followed by the replanting of native trees.

Goat Fest

Goat Fest held July 30, 2022 showed off not only the goats, but South Side Park, too. Photo: Andrea Laurion

At the end of July, Friends of South Side Park held their annual Goat Fest, a way for people to meet the goats and see the work that’s been done so far. Kitty Vagley of the South Side Flats neighborhood got involved with the Friends of South Side Park project several years ago thanks to a friend in city planning. 

“Little did I know that we’d be running a giant goat fest,” she said. 

The park’s industrial past

Decades ago, the land was the site of coal mines and barrel and brick factories. A dozen residential homes stood here as recently as the 1950s. In the late 1800s, the Keeling Coal Railroad ran partly underground right through what’s now South Side Park.

That’s why 21st Street is so wide, because there was a railroad running down the middle of it, carrying coal for decades and decades,” Vagley said. 

Steffes said the evidence of the park’s industrial past can be found in what’s called the Jurassic Valley, an area thick with overgrown invasive vegetation. She described how the hillside where the goats had cleared was full of fill, consisting of old bricks, tiles, soil, and rocks. The goats had started at the top of the hill.

“We’re now about 30 feet below the top because at this point they’ve replanted, but as the goats were here, they were unearthing all of this debris,” she said.

Vagley said that the area was so thick with overgrown invasive plants that it was difficult to see the ground before the goats got there. 

“Because they’re eating things down to the nub, they let us see where the trees are, so we’re not breaking our ankles, trying to figure out what the next step is,” she said.

How they do it

As chief goat herder, Steffes sets up the sites, makes sure there are no poisonous plants in their grazing area, and checks on them each day. There are four teams of goats working around Pittsburgh. Some of her responsibilities include bringing the goats water, making sure the fences are still up, and checking on each site.

Deming said the goats will stay in one area for weeks at a time, mostly grazing at night. The herds stay safe thanks to the protection of both an electric fence as well as a guardian donkey, in this case, one named Hobo. Why use a donkey?

Donkeys have an innate dislike of canines,” he said. “Even though we don’t necessarily see them, many of our spaces that we work have coyotes around.

The real reason behind Goat Fest

This year’s Goat Fest was the most popular one yet. Matt Klempa made a trip up from Wheeling, W.Va., to see them.

“I have a house with a big backyard, and I wish I could get some goats,” Klempa said.

For Steffes, the event was more than just a celebration of her furry coworkers. It was a way to get people to experience a park they might not have visited otherwise.

“Tons of people just don’t know about South Side Park,” she said. “You’ve got the valley; it’s in an abandoned incline. You’ve got the Sterling Street steps, you have a view of a bridge, another river valley, and the Cathedral of Learning,” she said, looking out over the hillside. “That’s why I like this restoration project. It’s very empowering. You can tell that it’s working.”