Counting sheep and goats in the gorge
It's not every day that a troop of rangers, volunteers and students head to Cheddar Gorge with clipboards and the aim of finding out how many sheep and goats they can spot.
It’s been a busy year for the feral goats and feral soay sheep that live at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. The annual count tallied over 100 sheep and 60 goats, marking a small rise in the populations of both animals.
The count is made at this time of year as it’s easier to locate the animals, and because it is the rutting season. During the rut, the philosophy of the billies is that it’s better to burn out than fade away, and they try to mate with as many nannies as possible. They rarely eat over the course of several weeks and behave explicitly in an effort to attract female partners - as well as repelling other males.
The hardy sheep and goat breeds play a vital role in the conservation of the gorge, keeping the scrub from invading the flower-rich grasslands and encouraging a greater diversity of wildlife. This includes rare butterflies, reptiles and small mammals.
By tallying the animals, our rangers are able to make a judgement about the impact they are having on the flora in the gorge, especially on the extremely rare whitebeam trees.
David Bullock, Head of Nature Conservation, said, 'The goats and soay sheep are our unpaid workforce at Cheddar, and play an integral role in the conservation of the area. It’s important to maintain the right level of grazing pressures so that the sheep eat enough grass to promote the growth of wild flowers – including the rare Cheddar Pink - and the goats control the scrub.'
The soay sheep are native to the Scottish archipelago of St Kilda, a group of islands out into the Atlantic. A primitive ancestor of the present day sheep, they can also be found on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel.
Feral goats can also be found on Lundy, and the mountains of North Wales, the Scottish-English border and in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. They are descendants of old breeds of goats that died out around a century ago. Across the UK, there are over 40 populations of feral goats, which were introduced to Cheddar Gorge for conservation purposes in the 1990s.
Cheddar is home to a range of other flora and fauna. Both Greater and Lesser horseshoe bats roost in caves in the gorge. The famous Cheddar Pink – and other rare plants – grow along the cliff edges, while birds including peregrine falcons, buzzards, kestrels and ravens nest high above the valley floor.