Our work on Ventnor Downs
High on Ventnor Downs on the Isle of Wight lives a herd of old English feral goats. They can be hard to spot, hidden amongst the trees, but they're doing important conservation work by keeping the invasive holm oaks under control and thereby restoring the chalk grassland that so many native plants and animals rely on.
The history of the Ventnor goats
Many of the goats living wild in Britain today are believed to have escaped from farms in Neolithic times. The goats on Ventnor Downs are an ancient breed but were originally released in the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland in the 1860s.
In 1976, three Cheviot goats were transported to the Valley of the Rocks in Devon where they bred and became a well-established herd. In 1993, the National Trust collected seven of these goats and brought them to the Isle of Wight.
Their job is to control the spread of the holm oak trees planted across Ventnor by the Victorians.
Goat behaviour to look out for
The goats are tough, self-sufficient and well-adapted to life on the steep, windswept slopes of the Downs.
Billy goats will attempt to assert their dominance over other males with a fixed stare and a lowering of the horns. This may lead to a ‘clash’, where horns are locked until a victor finally emerges.
The goats are not aggressive towards humans, though, and are generally seen as having an endearing intelligent look.
Nanny goats form a separate group from the males, with a lead matriarch and their young kids in tow.
The Ventnor goats’ diet
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.
The goats can stand on their hind legs to feed, which creates a conspicuous browse line. The stripping of a tree’s bark means the tree will slowly die, starved of water and nutrients – but that’s a positive thing for Ventnor’s natural habitats.
Goats and the holm oak
The spread of the holm oak poses a serious threat to the chalk grassland here, causing butterfly and insect populations to dwindle. National Trust had to find a means of control – goats were the answer due to their appetite for bark stripping.
Since the goats were introduced onto the Downs, the holm oak has gradually been brought under control and an increasing amount of Ventnor’s important chalk grassland habitat restored.
Flower-rich turf has been re-established and butterflies – such as the striking Adonis blue – that rely on these chalk-loving plants, have made a comeback.
Several decades after their arrival on the Isle of Wight, the goats are still proving their worth.
The annual goat round-up on Ventnor Downs
Each year, around September or October, the goats are given a health check.
In what has become an annual challenge, National Trust rangers round up these elusive and often stubborn animals to record their ear tag numbers, check their teeth, trim their hooves and generally assess their health.
Gorse removal on Luccombe Down
Ventnor Downs is a nationally important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its rare heath and acid grassland, and as part of that designation, we have a duty of care to ensure that it remains this way. Natural England recently assessed the site and decided that, to help the rare heath and acid grassland thrive, we needed to remove some of the gorse.
To do this we have scraped back the gorse and the underlying humus in areas that are next to mature heather or acid grassland. This has exposed the flint in which the gorse was growing and will allow the heather and acid grassland to establish in the exposed areas. In some places, gorse and humus was bulldozed into the edge of the clay soil, as heath won’t establish here. The result looks quite dramatic, but significantly reduced the amount of gorse we have to burn, which is better for the environment.
In a few years, the area will be covered in a carpet of purple heather, aided by the lack of tall vegetation which would have rapidly grown in the thick humus layer had we not removed it.
Gorse is still an important habitat for birds, and so we have left a quarter of the gorse and scrub on the heathland areas and will rotationally cut it, so wildlife can still benefit from it.
Explore the chalk hills above the Victorian seaside town of Ventnor for dramatic views, picturesque walks, a chance to spot the local goats, and some historic memorials.
St Boniface is believed to have preached in Bonchurch at Pulpit Rock, the area is named in his memory, along with the legendary St Boniface Well.