A harsh, wet winter makes it no country for Old Irish goats


ANOTHER LIFE:THIS WAS NOT the best of winters in which to be a goat, at least not one of the wilder sort that Robert Lloyd Praeger described in The Way That I Went: “See them on some rocky place – a herd of them, of all ages – led by a grand old patriarch with huge curving horns! They fit in so naturally among heather and gnarled rock, and mount a miniature Matterhorn with such a regal, king-of-the-castle air!”

Praeger’s glimpse, getting on for century ago, was of the “wild” goats around Mulrany, tucked beneath the mountains at the corner of Clew Bay in Co Mayo. They’re still there, browsing the bushy Mediterranean heather above the road or, on the rawest days this winter, even clattering into the village to sample garden shrubs across the walls. What Praeger didn’t know (apart from the fact that it’s the oldest nanny goat that is the leader) was that Mulrany’s goats – some 50 or more – could be descended from some of our oldest animals, at least as native and Irish as red deer or the Kerry bog pony.

Groups of them were stalked across a mountainside last month by Dr Raymond Werner, from the UK, who has spent 50 years studying the origins, evolution and management of the wild and feral goats of these islands. It is his conviction that a northern, cold-weather goat existed in Europe in the latter stages of the Ice Age and was domesticated by pastoral nomads in the Mesolithic era or even earlier. Later, he believes, as Neolithic farmers moved westwards through Europe, with entirely different goats that suited their husbandry, the original northern goats survived only at the Atlantic periphery, becoming, on this island, the wild landrace of Old Irish goat.

Small and robust, short-legged and cobby, the animal has a thick and wiry coat with an abundance of underwool or cashmere. Its head is long, with a deeply dished face, and the ears are pricked and small. The Mulrany goats, in Werner’s appraisal, could be an exceptionally pure survival of the landrace, “as important to the country’s heritage as the Megalithic tombs”. So far, however, they have no protection in law and there is no official plan for their conservation.

Old Irish goats have also survived among the 1,000 or so feral and wary goats of the Burren uplands, but here their genes have been liberally mixed with the modern Swiss-based breeds escaped from dairy flocks. Perhaps as few as 10 per cent of the Burren goats can now be regarded as authentically Old Irish, and, left to themselves, their bloodline will soon become extinct. Meanwhile, they are caught up in the long-running conflict with Burren farmers as they graze and browse in the wrong places, and break down the old limestone walls. Entire 100-strong herds have been culled commercially over the years. But the browsing of goats helps to control invasive hazel scrub and preserve the Burren’s famous floral ecosystem, while the goats themselves are a colourful, symbolic part of the region’s tourist image.

Werner has offered strategies for managing the Burren goats and has helped the local Old Irish Goat Society in efforts to save a breeding nucleus of selected animals. Thirty animals were rounded up to live in a conservation enclosure, but their natural wildness has made them difficult to contain. The venture has, however, provided DNA samples from which to start building a genetic profile of the Old Irish breed. This breed now numbers, perhaps, no more than 250 animals among the wild goats found on the heights of many Irish uplands.

Further DNA should be available at Mulrany in May, when the energetic local environment group, led by walking guide Sean Carolan, plans a round-up of the goats with the strongest Old Irish features. From observation so far there are at least two nanny groups, the basic unit of wild goat society. The most promising group, of about two dozen animals, is led by an elderly female patterned with dusky, ancient goat colours.

At Werner’s side in last month’s sorties up the mountain was Ruth Enright, a PhD student at University College Cork, whose own research into the ecology of the Old Irish goat would make good use of DNA profiling. A newly discovered source of comparison material is the stuffed trophy head of a goat on the wall of a house in Mulrany. It is dated 1895, before the railway reached Mulrany and thus before the likelihood of any modern goats arriving to sully the local mountainy genes.

As for that notion of majestic King Puck, subscribed to by Praeger and celebrated annually in Killarney, a rather different picture emerges from the research of Raymond Werner, who has studied wild and feral goats the way others have studied meerkats or gorillas. He finds the males “generally more vulnerable than females”, keener on finding shelter and “significantly more likely to succumb during particularly harsh or wet winters”. The older ones may wander “in a vaguely straight line” for perhaps as much as 80 kilometres.

Eye on nature

Recently in Marbella we saw lots of blue tits, an odd sight in palm trees. Usually there are seabirds, sparrows and starlings. We looked them up in the books and found that blue tits do not migrate.- Fanny de Burgh Whyte, Rathgar, Dublin 6

There are millions of blue tits in Spain, and you are correct: they do not migrate and are resident in their local areas.

While walking the suberb Great Western Greenway from Newport to Mulrany we witnessed the birth of a calf and watched an otter frolicking in the estuary below. Magical Mayo in January.- Barbara Browne, Knockmore, Co Mayo

We have a very aggressive blackcap. He seems to live with us throughout the year, but his wife, in her brown bonnet, appears only occasionally. He spends all his time chasing away all the other birds from the feeders. Are blackcaps usually so aggressive?- Wendy Clinch, Dundrum, Dublin 14

Male blackcaps defend their territory, which obviously includes your feeders in this case, extremely aggressively. Their body feathers are tight or fluffed out, with the tail whirling around and the black head feathers raised, in what one observer has described as expressive of the most intense rage. Still, their song is so beautiful.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, viney@anu.ie. Please Include a postal address