Between a rock and a goat's place in Waterford

Tue, Aug 25, 2009, 01:00

RESIDENTS OF Waterford city’s only high-rise neighbourhood, Bilberry Rock, are a tough breed. The area has a population of just 42, who are broad and stocky, walk on spongy, padded feet, sport long beards, and favour a hairstyle that involves a blonde fringe covering the eyes. The menfolk, known affectionately as “Billies”, are noted for showing off their strength to other males by shaking their heads and butting each other with their long horns, writes MICHAEL PARSONS

It sounds just like a Saturday night on the quays of the southeast’s big port city. But, in fact, Waterford’s famous wild goats never venture downtown these days and are unlikely to come to the attention of gardaí.

However, their head keeper, Martin Doyle, explains that their behaviour during this “rutting season” makes even the wildest bunch of partying “stags” seem tame by comparison. The goats stand facing the wind, fill their lungs to capacity, and then “urinate on to their own faces and noses” before exhaling a scent called “the love potion” to attract females. The odour, which he says “can travel up to six miles”, is “better than any after-shave and while it may not smell good, it’s a great aphrodisiac”.

Doyle (48) is standing on Bilberry Rock, high above the steep banks of the River Suir on a 14-acre commonage that is “home to the world’s only city-centre herd of feral goats”. It’s a far cry from his previous life working on the Orient Express, “looking after royalty and film stars”.

The Bilberry goats, grazing on their windswept summit – which is also a traditional courting spot for local couples – have been a feature of Waterford city life and lore for generations. Local people believe they were originally brought to Ireland by French Huguenots more than 300 years ago, and experts believe the breed is unique. Dr Raymond Werner, an internationally renowned expert on goats, is reported as claiming that the Waterford goats may be related to the central Asian Pashmina Down breed group.

The rock itself is named after a plantation of bilberry bushes laid down in the 18th century by a local apothecary who used the berries for medicinal purposes. At the end of the 1990s the wildlife habitat was threatened when plans were drawn up to build a housing estate on the land. The local community fought back and in the ensuing court and Bord Pleanála battles, the goats were represented by their own law firm – David Morris Co solicitors of Clonmel – a first in Irish legal history. As Doyle puts it: “Bord Pleanála ruled that a feral goat herd was incompatible with a housing estate.”

Since then, the developer’s plans have been shelved and the council has relented. The Bilberry Goat Heritage Trust has been established and the future of the goats seems secure.

Doyle expects more than “2,500 people to visit the site on Gracedieu Road during this week’s Heritage Week promotion. Among those visiting yesterday were Ian and Eimer Cheevers and their two sons, Jack (10), who said “I really like it; I love the goats and the scenery“; and Sam (4), who liked their “funny horns”.

Among the infectiously enthusiastic volunteer workers were Alberto Soteldo (29), a Venezuelan living in the nearby village of Kilmeaden, who “wanted to do something different” and finds the project “amazing and unique”. Mark Condon (12) spent his last summer before going to secondary school helping out and “really enjoyed it”.

The trust hopes to revive the lost tradition of goats’ cheese-making in Waterford and next year there will be 20 milking females producing 40kg of cheese a week. It believes that Bilberry Goats’ Cheese, once a Waterford delicacy like the city’s famous blaa (a type of bread-roll), could become a “luxury food item which would be sold in top-range shops and even be exported to Harrods”.