Golf’s Eco-Lawn Mower? Look Out for the Goat at Hole Nine

Bringing in these grazing animals is a small step in the right direction for America’s growing pastime.

Grazing goats are an eco-friendly way to clean up golf courses. (Photo: Tony C French)
The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

There’s a new presence on the golf course, and its favorite snack is poison ivy.

Enterprising golf clubs in the U.S. and Canada are increasingly purchasing goats to act as eco-friendly lawn mowers: trimming fields, fertilizing soil, and clearing weeds that would normally be sprayed with pesticides.  

This month, 300 goats descended on San Francisco’s Presidio Golf Course to chomp on overgrown grass and flowers around certain holes, and cut down on the club’s use of pesticides.

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“These areas are very overgrown. They’ve never been manicured. They’re impossible to access with lawn mowers,” Dana Polk, a spokeswoman for Presidio, told CBS San Francisco.

Presidio officials hope the goats will uncover some of the native vegetation on their course, covered over by tricky weeds and non-native grasses.  

Settler’s Ghost, a golf course in Ontario, Canada, bought two baby goats this spring—they’ve named them Whipper and Snipper—following the example of courses in the U.S.

Whipper and Snipper have become a popular attraction for club members who are interested in “greening” their favorite sport. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Chris Gulliver, the golf superintendent of Settler’s Ghost, noted that he hadn’t used any pesticides since acquiring the goats, saving his scenic land from four to five cases of pesticides a season.

Golf courses have long been a thorn in the side of environmental advocates, who argue that the maintenance of 18 holes has damaging impacts on the surrounding environment.

Keeping golf courses green and insect-free has often translated into the ubiquitous application of pesticides, fertilizers, and insect-killers on huge swathes of land, which can end up polluting waterways through runoff. 

Noxious pesticides like methyl bromide are staples on some courses, and many also use non-native grasses, which require larger pesticide loads, and can harm natural ecosystems in the surrounding area.

And then there’s the water use. 

An 18-hole golf course consumes as much as 3,000 to 5,000 cubic meters of water per day—enough water to meet the daily needs for 2,000 families or 15,000 individual Americans, according to a 2006 paper on the environmental impacts of golf. 

Furthermore, the paper states that the golf courses of the world use 9.5 million meters of water per day as irrigation. That is the amount of water it would take to support 4.7 billion people at the United Nation’s daily minimum requirement, or more than two-thirds of the world.

Despite its mammoth environmental footprint, golf has become increasingly popular in recent decades. The number of American golfers has tripled since 1970, from 11.2 million to nearly 34 million, and the number of courses has expanded accordingly.

Golf courses now cover 2.2 million acres of the U.S—more than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

Perhaps other golf courses will follow suit and reduce their pesticide loads by purchasing four-legged lawn mowers. But real environmental reforms on the fairway will have to account for much, much more.  

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