Goats on Ventnor Downs
High on Ventnor Downs on the Isle of Wight, live our herd of Old English feral goats. They're may be hard to spot, hidden amongst the trees, but they're helping us with important conservation work, keeping the invasive holm oaks under control and helping to restore the species-rich chalk grassland.
Goats are believed to have escaped from farms in Neolithic times and then become wild again.
The goats we have at Ventnor Downs are an ancient breed, originally released in the Cheviots, Northumberland, in the 1860s.
In 1976, three Cheviot goats were brought to The Valley of the Rocks in Devon where they bred and became a well established herd. In 1993 we collected seven of these and brought them to the Isle of Wight.
Their job was to control the spread of the holm oak trees planted around Ventnor by the Victorians.
Our goats are tough and self-sufficient, and well-suited to life on the steep windswept slopes of the downs.
Billy goats will assert their dominance over other males by a fixed stare and a lowering of the horns. They may resort to a ‘clash’, where heads and horns are locked until a victor emerges.
But they're not aggressive towards humans and have an endearing intelligent look. Nannies form a separate group with a lead ‘matriarch’ and young kids in tow.
Goats can graze like sheep but prefer to browse woody vegetation, including tree bark.
They enjoy a varied diet on the downs, consisting of holm oak, ash and sycamore as well as coarse grasses, bramble and hawthorn.
They can stand on their hind legs to feed, which creates a conspicuous browse line. The stripping of a tree’s bark means that the tree will slowly die because it's starved of water and nutrients.
Goats and the holm oak
Since the goats were introduced onto the downs, the holm oak has been gradually brought under control and more valuable chalk grassland has been restored.
Flower-rich turf has re-established and butterflies, like Adonis blue, that rely on these chalk-loving plants, have increased.
So, several decades since their arrival on the Isle of Wight, the goats are still proving their worth.
Every year around September or October, the goats are rounded up to have their ear tag numbers recorded, teeth checked, hooves trimmed and general health assessed. But they can be elusive and stubborn, so herding them into a pen is no mean feat.
The annual event involves as many helpers as can be mustered and a strenuous morning’s work. Fit and able volunteers are always welcome at the round up. To join in, ring us on 01983 741020.