Goats in Conservation
The amazing biodiversity of the British countryside has been built by countless generations of farmers, and the manner in which we farm and raise our animals, to us is the right way of doing things, treating animals in a loving manner and letting them live in a stress free and natural environment we believe is the way all animals should be cared for. By trying to understand the animals we farm allows us to farm in a traditional manner.
Recently, compelling economic forces have led to increasing agricultural intensification with the result that the sustainability of farming is declining and farmland biodiversity is being lost extremely fast – with massive declines in birds, bumblebees and many other species. As around 80% of Britain is used for farming, with 35% for arable crops, it’s vital to act decisively in the food and farming sector if ecological sustainability in the UK is to be maintained.
By using our goats within our carefully designed habitat management programmes here on the farm we are creating the essential conditions where nature and farming can function sustainably side by side again, for all of us working with nature and not against it is better outcome for us all...
1. Foraging characteristics of our goats and their impact on vegetation structure...
Goats do best when they have access to a wide range of plant species and a structurally diverse habitat, as they can either graze or browse.
We find that allowing your goats this different type of grazing access will keep them under control so that the goat does not get 'bored'.
Goats have narrow muzzles and a flexible upper lip which allows them to be highly selective. In addition, they are agile and good climbers, allowing them to access a greater range of forage than sheep.
Goats graze a sward to a typical 6cm height (3cm for sheep), but browse and graze to approximately 2 m with ease, by going bipedal and climbing.
In grass, tall herb and scrub mosaics grazed by sheep, the first two are targeted; where just goats are kept, the grass layer is somewhat ignored but the scrub and tall herb layers are targeted instead.
However, as goats can be more selective than sheep, they often target grass seed heads (e.g. of wood false-brome) before they eat the leaves.
2. Feeding preferences - Goats do not eat everything...
Goats are highly responsive (opportunistic) in exploiting ephemeral types of feed. They are able to climb low branches of trees and are adept at covering steep rocky ground at speed.
They are very selective and able to target the leaves and flowering parts of herbaceous species including Orchids, Gorse flowers (which they are able to extract from amongst the spines of the leaves), ferns and fruits, including hazel nuts.
Goats greatly enjoy eating certain wild plants and hedgerow cuttings. Some are safe but others must absolutely be avoided, as they can cause fatal poisoning, Do Not feed: Alder, yew, rhododendron, laurel, privet, laburnum, honeysuckle, walnut, evergreen shrubs, green-stuff from flowers including delphiniums, hellebores, or any bulbous plants such as daffodils or tulips, and Avoid at the utmost: hemlock, buttercup, bryony, dog’s mercury, ragwort, mayweed, foxglove, celandine, the nightshades and old man’s beard.
The golden rule is ‘when in doubt, don’t feed’. Owners should also take care not to leave clippings from poisonous plants/trees lying around. Over-feeding brassica plants like cabbage, cauliflower or brussel sprouts will affect the taste of the milk and meat but they are not poisonous to goats.
Rushes are targeted in the spring, soft rush may be effectively controlled at this time of the year by mob stocking at high densities of greater than 10 goats per hectare.
3. The Impact they have on trees and shrubs...
Highly effective browsing ability and where woody vegetation is readily available, goats tend to browse for 50-75 % of their feeding time – much more than most other large herbivores.
In addition, goats usually bark strip a range of trees. In upland Oak situations the order of preference is: Holly and Ash, Rowan and Willow, Oak, Hazel, Alder and lastly, Birch; in lowland, a base-rich site, Elder is taken first, followed by Ash, with black thorn, Sycamore and Rose taken in similar quantities. Goats do not willingly bark strip Field Maple or Hawthorn. Bark stripping occurs most in mid-late winter. Pine is also readily taken, particularly during the spring.
Thus goats have the potential to effectively control scrub which is invading grass lands. Goats may browse heather to a much greater extent than sheep.
Here on our farm the extensive area that was covered in gorse bushes has been cleared to almost half in only two years of grazing. Another year or so and we will have nearly 30 acres extra hill grazing.
4. Social behaviour of our goats and its effects on foraging...
Goats are social animals and in the feral or free-ranging state they form matriarchal groups (of nannies and young) that can included yearling billies. Typically, these are hefted to an area which includes some dry, sheltered ground.
Billies may be more solitary and are known to wander for several kilometres in search of females in oestrus, but can be found in all-male groups outside rutting period.
Because of their strong rutting behaviour, fecund billies may not be ideal components of nature management schemes, and (feral) castrate billies may be used instead.
Because of the size of our conservational grazing area, and that our stock is constantly checked we can graze billies that are entire, which is an essential part of our Rare Breed Goat conservation scheme.
5. Sex and dietary differences of our goats...
This is not properly understood, but mature billies appear to bark strip more than nannies, perhaps because they use sheltered sites more frequently. Billy goats seem to eat Ivy more than nannies; this might be because they may need more bulk food even if it is low quality.
6. Impact of age on foraging ability...
In good conditions where goats do not rely on hard grazing or bark, they can remain in active service in nature management schemes for at least a decade.
However, as with sheep, they do not develop a full set of teeth until their fifth year, and as they become older they are likely to begin to lose teeth and become ‘broken-mouthed’. Thus in practice, their working life is usually less than 10 years (but not always the case).
7. Our goats dunging behaviour...
Like sheep, goats dung in favoured rest/shelter sites. Shelter sites used by ferals can have deep up to 0.5m accumulations of dung from centuries of use. Throughout the farm where our goats graze you can see areas that they will not graze due contaminated herbage caused from their dung
In legend, Robert the Bruce, when fleeing from the English on the east side of Loch Lomaond, hid in a cave used by goats. The English seeing and smelling the goats therein could not believe that the Bruce was also in there and passed on – hence the Royal decree he passed protecting the goats from molestation. (We will discus the goats of Inversnaid at a later date)
The goat cave is still there, and has a big accumulation of dung; it is still used by goats.