The NSW Rural Fire Service has a new secret weapon in the battle against deadly bushfires: goats.
On Tuesday, the firefighting service released 14 highly-trained goats into a patch of thick undergrowth reaching to within a few dozen metres of the Werris Creek hospital in northern NSW on Tuesday.
The humble goat can sometimes go where firefighters cannot, or clear brush it would be too dangerous to burn, explained RFS manager of community risk for the north west Shellie Smyth.
"Particularly for that site at Werris Creek, if we were to conduct a hazard reduction burn there, we would have significant issues for any patient with respiratory issues," she said.
"That was problematic for us.
"The goats have created the solution for us."
Hazard reduction burns, which are a form of controlled burn-off designed to safely convert potentially flammable undergrowth into smoke at a time when they won't get out of control, can be hindered by more than just weather or nearby sensitive settlements like hospitals. The service isn't allowed to burn areas that have been recently burned. Goats allow them to knock down the hazard in those areas anyway.
Ms Smyth said the trial of what she called "mitigation goats" was a first for the RFS in the region.
The herd of tame goats were hired from out of the area, and are being managed by Green Goats Australia, a contractor based in the Bellinger Valley.
But the RFS is already in talks with local farmers, in what could be a substantial payday for the local agriculture sector. The service is in the process of "onboarding" a farmer from Hanging Rock, near Nundle in central NSW, for future hazard reduction efforts, she said.
The goats are trained to stay within an electric fence, but they don't need any training in how to eat grass and weeds.
Ms Smyth said it took several months of planning to get the hazard reduction activity approved - but unlike a burn-off, goat mitigation can't be deterred by wind or rain.
"I think it will just become one of the pieces in our toolkit," she said.
"Obviously those sensitive areas like hospitals, potentially schools, places where terrain is really difficult ... it's a good opportunity for us to use something else and have another option."
It will take the goats about a month to finish their meal.
But the RFS is already looking for new sites for goat mitigation work.
The next is likely to be a location north of Tamworth, which is banned to burn-offs because it was burned in 2019.
The trial of the new technique is being conducted as a direct response to the inquiry into the Black Summer bushfires in 2019 to 20.