Monday, 6 December 2010

My Feral Goats

When a man from the forestry said he was thinking of culling the goats my body tensed and logic was pushed aside by emotion. I like what he’s doing to the forest behind me, replacing regiments of sterile conifer with a rich mix of broadleaf, but the trouble is, so do the goats. They love the tender shoots and bark of young saplings and it’s not so difficult for them to break through the skimpy, protective tubes.

‘My goats’ are two gangs that live close to our house in the foothills of Moelwyn Bach, overlooking the Vale of Ffestiniog – the above the railway gang and the below the railway gang.

In the latter there were six when I first met them, led by an impressive billy crowned with unwieldy, lyre-shaped horns. At the end of that autumn’s rutting season he had been ousted by a thug with a single, scimitar-shaped horn - if he deigned to look at you his face was twisted by the heavy side.

They come and go as they please within a couple of miles from where they were born. For over two centuries goats have grazed these mountains free-range, escapees from ancient farming stock, discarded with the advent of high volume sheep production. They were the perfect multi-purpose animal providing meat and skin, milk, tallow for candles and hair for judges’ wigs. A mixed flock was considered a good combination with agile goats removing the temptation of lush plants on ledges too perilous for cumbersome sheep.

I took a phone call from my neighbour the farmer – a goat was stuck on a stone wall, could I help him get it down? The goat’s back leg was caught in strands of wire that topped the wall. Its head was on the ground, watching us through the unblinking upside eye, weak from the ordeal and with rusty metal cutting deep into its hoof. We lifted the goat, snipped the wire and carried her down the hill – she must have been trapped for a couple of days and had lost the use of both back legs. Medicine was prescribed and the farmer housed and fed her in a pen and each evening for several weeks the family of goats walked by and called out to her. Eventually she recovered, hopped out and rejoined the gang, maybe not as nimble as before and wearing a red tag on each ear - farmers do these things.

Weeks can go by without seeing my goats then one day they’ll stroll past. Then, working as a team, they will rear up on hind legs to pull down oak branches, releasing them like a spring when their mouths are bulging with leaves. Sometimes I hear them coming, announced by the plaintive whinnies of a straggler trying to catch up, or I get a whiff when I’m downwind of them. They don’t mind me being around but if I get too close the billy leads them off.

They seemed to admire and note our efforts to cultivate the walled garden and I na├»vely thought they’d respect our territory. To my dismay I returned one evening to find them munching the runner beans, uprooting strawberry plants and snapping newly planted fruit trees. My instinct was to shake a stick and curse as the adults hopped out and the young kid wriggled through a gap in my porous defences. But I’m not that scary and they were back again the following day so I set to and built a fence on top of the walls. Since then they have left my crops alone.

Each December I take part in the Snowdonia goat census, over several days counting as best we can in snow, cloud and rain. We look for ‘half sheep’; from a distance the black parts of their coats make them look like truncated sheep. If we get close enough we study their horns to sex and age them. They are multiplying fast despite the recent harsh winter and making ever more impact on best endeavours to regenerate ancient woodlands.

Last year I joined in with the Glyderau part of the census and was assigned to the team surveying Cwm Idwal, a sensitive area for the rare arctic alpine plants. Our route took us to the east of Llyn Idwal up a narrow ridge to the summit of Glyder Fawr where, huddled behind pillars of rock as the snow flew past, we munched sandwiches.

By the end of the day we had counted 27 goats, looking as cold and wet as I felt, contributing to the total of 117 for the Glyderau, a modest increase of 12 over the previous year.

My garden is small enough to defend but on a landscape scale fencing is not a viable option. Transportation and contraception are impractical and alas culling by a marksman is the only practical option. But surely not my goats?

The gang below the railway has had a run of bad luck and is down to just six adults plus last year’s kid. The one with red tags in her ears was found at the bottom of a cliff, maybe she never regained full agility, and the eldest female died in childbirth with the first of twin kids beside her. For the time being there is an acceptable balance of nature - thanks in part to my garden fence.

But above the railway the gang has doubled in size with newcomers arriving from across the mountain and the birth of four kids this February. I hope this goes unnoticed by the man from the forestry – I would like to have my cake and eat it too.

Click here to see a film of the above the railway gang

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