A need for feed: Goats employed as landscapers on Fox Lake island
Vicki Segel feeds the 15 goats and five sheep that populate Goat Island on Fox Lake. Segel and her husband, Scott, own The Island on the Chain RV Park and brought goats to the island across the channel in 2015. (Megan Jones / Lake County News-Sun)
Rain or shine, the landscapers brought in to clean away thick, overgrown brush go to work each day with no complaints.
The job is simple: eat until you’re full, graze in the grass and, if they are lucky, enjoy a nice fire of chopped-down trees and branches later.
But these are not typical landscapers using traditional tools — they are a herd of 15 goats and five sheep, and they live on what is now known to many Chain O’ Lakes boaters as Goat Island.
The island, located on Ackerman Channel off Fox Lake, is a part of property owned by The Island on the Chain RV Park west of Antioch. Across the channel from the RV park sits an empty island that was not maintained and went unusable for several years.
The property has been run by the Knourek family since the 1980s, and owners Vicki and Scott Segel took over responsibility from her parents. Vicki’s father, Bob Knourek, always joked of putting sheep on the island but never was able to do it. Years after he passed in 2007, she said she imagines he is happy to see the island filled with both sheep and goats.
"I love it when boaters come by water, and you can see people boating slowly with binoculars and long-range cameras taking pictures when we are out there working," Segel said.
Segel has rented the goats from Wisconsin-based Vegetation Solutions each summer since 2015 as a way to clear out the overgrown vegetation and invasive plants on the island. The animals move about the grounds and eat vegetation that would be difficult to maintain with traditional landscaping tools.
"When we first dropped them off, they got off the boat and literally disappeared into the brush," she said. "The island was completely filled with buckthorn and underbrush, and you really couldn’t see 10 feet ahead."
At the end of each summer, Vegetation Solutions owner Ben Robel brings the animals back to his farm in Richland Center, Wis., where they are bred and fed hay all winter.
Social media has helped spread the secret of Goat Island with people asking where the island is located on the Chain O’ Lakes Family Boaters Facebook page.
One fan wrote on the page, "The first rule of Goat Island, you don’t talk about Goat Island."
Segel and Robel said the island is not a petting zoo and the goats have a job to do. The land is private property and trespassers are not allowed on, but anyone hoping to see the goats can contact Segel and she can herd the goats to a cleared-away point on the island for lakeside viewing.
"We nicknamed one of the goats Jenny, and then I realized that when I yell the name, it kind of sounds like the noise a goat makes," Segel said. "So, I feel less silly calling out (and) pretending I’m a goat, and instead, I yell ‘Jenny’ and they come running."
It’s not just boaters who are getting a kick out of the goats. Residents are, too. When Segel first told them goats were coming to the island, the residents thought it was an April Fools joke.
Ken Arthur has lived across from Goat Island for 18 years, and said they are friendly faces, like children, to see each morning.
"They have done such a terrific job holding down the brush and the weeds, and everything they like to eat," he said. "It really cleared it up and made it beautiful to look at, and it keeps getting better and better each year."
Arthur and his wife live in Cicero and enjoy what he calls "God’s country" at the RV park each summer. They boat and sit at "the point" of the channel and see an increase of boaters coming through slowly.
"You’ll see people I don’t know coming through nice and slow with big pontoon boats, and their kids will be pointing and excited to see the goats," he said. "The kids get a big kick out of it — and we do, too."
The goats currently free graze across the entire island, so it is a slow process to clear vegetation because they are not concentrating on one area. They will eat anything from buckthorn to poison ivy.
Vegetation Solutions owner Robel estimates that 50 goats on one acre could clear the area in four to seven days. He said how quickly areas are cleared depends on a multitude of things, such as the height of the brush and the weather.
After hearing about how goats were used to clear vegetation at O’Hare International Airport in 2014, Segel began researching online to find a company from which she could rent animals.
Robel’s farm currently maintains 220 goats, and they are in high demand.
"More people have been looking for this service lately," he said. "I get contacted almost every day now asking."
And it is not just goats who inhabit the island now, but a pair of bald eagles. The eagles previously nested near Grass Lake bridge, but the nest was blown down by a storm a few years ago.
Segel said the eagles have had success since rebuilding their nest, with three babies born in 2016 and two born in 2017.
"They have been flying all over the place, and it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen the adults," Segel said. "But I think once they start flying, the adults leave the land to the young ones."
The eagles eat the cormorants who also nest on the island, and have never bothered the goats.
"There have been years where we’ve had some really tiny goats, and I’ve thought, ‘Oh, that could be a eagle snack,’ but Ben said they’ll be fine," she said. "He is the relaxed one, while I am more like the mother to all these goats and they are my babies. I definitely have gotten attached to them."
In the future, once the vegetation is cleared, Segel hopes to grow new grasses and create a prairie that RV park residents can enjoy.
"I want to keep doing this forever," she said. "My husband jokes and said, ‘What are we going to do when all the vegetation is cleared?’ And I said, ‘The goats are still coming!"’
Megan Jones is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.