Ottawa a no-goat zone for woman's weed-control venture

A Richmond woman is butting heads with Ottawa city hall over her plan to bring her rent-a-goat business to town to deal with invasive weeds such as wild parsnip.

Richmond woman's rent-a-goat business doesn't cut it with animal bylaw

Amber McCoy holds one of her Nigerian dwarf goats, considered livestock under City of Ottawa bylaws. (Stu Mills/CBC)

An entrepreneur is locking horns with Ottawa city hall over her unorthodox approach to controlling invasive plants.

Amber McCoy came up with her business idea as she was struggling with an invasion of wild parsnip, a noxious weed that can leave serious burns on arms and legs

"I was having a fight with wild parsnip at my house and I was losing," explained the Health Canada agriculture researcher, who lives in the village of Richmond.
Amber McCoy keeps her goats on a rural property outside the village of Richmond, where they're allowed. (Stu Mills/CBC)

She soon discovered her pet goats' appetite for not only that poisonous plant, but also Virginia creeper, giant hogweed and even poison ivy.

Goats have a natural preference for weeds over grass, and can consume most plants — even ones that are poisonous to people — without ill effects. In fact McCoy's Nigerian dwarf, pygmy and fainting goats can munch through bushels of buckthorn, poison oak, poison sumac, knotweed, bindweed, purple loosestrife and other nuisance plants in just a few hours.

"I'd like to give people another option to deal with a lot of these noxious and invasive weeds," McCoy said.

H&H Weed Control was born.

Goats livestock, city says

For $75 McCoy will drop off four of her hungry goats, along with some portable fencing, and set them loose on a customer's weed problem for the day.

I'd like to give people another option to deal with a lot of these noxious and invasive weeds.- Amber McCoy, H&H Weed Control

Last year McCoy tested her goats in Manotick Station, where she let the animals trim ultimate frisbee pitches. She's currently in talks with town officials in Lanark County, where she's hoping to get a hoof in the door. And this weekend she'll be up in Wakefield to give a rent-a-goat demonstration to groups trying to control rampant poison ivy.

The City of Ottawa is proving a tougher nut to crack. City bylaws regard goats simply as livestock, which are only permitted on property zoned as rural or agricultural. So even McCoy's smaller breeds aren't permitted in most places within the urban boundary.

"I get the bylaw," said McCoy. "You can't have a 200-pound goat in a residential area. They're aggressively affectionate, and they scare people, just because of their size."

'Dogs with horns'

But McCoy's goats, like Amelia, a one-year-old Nigerian dwarf, is about the size of a black lab. In fact she calls her small, sociable animals "dogs with horns."
Amelia, a Nigerian dwarf goat, is about the size of a black lab, and is one of the 'employees' of H&H Weed Control. (Stu Mills/CBC)

McCoy said she's spent the past year trying to arrange a meeting with city staff to discuss adding an exception to the bylaw.

"I'd like them just to talk with me. I'd just like them to sit down, because I know they have a lot of concerns, and I think I can alleviate most of them," said McCoy.

So far the city has remained gruff on the topic of goats.

'An innovative concept'

Rideau-Goulbourn Coun. Scott Moffatt said changing the broadly written livestock bylaw to allow goats in urban areas would open the barn door to other farm animals.

"Not only has there not been discussion about defining what size of goat it would be, but I think the issue is, if you're going to define that, then what about defining chickens?" Moffatt said.

"It's unfortunate that someone gets caught in that. It's an innovative concept. It's challenging from a bylaw perspective because bylaws don't have a lot of leeway given, or interpretation given."

McCoy also wants to explore potential commercial contracts with conservation authorities and Hydro One.

For now, McCoy says she and her goats will stick to controlling weeds on agricultural land. But she's hoping city officials will at least chew over her idea.

"People should have this option," she said.