Goats return to Howth hills in bid to control wildfires

Ever since goats departed the land in the 1940s, ‘wildfires have become the dominant feature’

A herd of 25 old Irish goats are now grazing the gorse in north Co Dublin as part of a conservation project. Photograph: iStock

A herd of 25 old Irish goats are now grazing the gorse in north Co Dublin as part of a conservation project. Photograph: iStock

 

A herd of 25 old Irish goats have begun grazing the gorse in north Co Dublin this morning, as part of a back-to-the-future conservation project.

The goats have travelled from Mulranny in Co Mayo to tend to Howth Head’s wild gorse with the aim of lessening the impact of wildfires, such as those that burnt out much of Shielmartin Hill this summer.

Also deployed to Howth is experienced goat herder Melissa Jeuken who, like the animals, has moved from a farm in the west of Ireland. From Co Clare, she had her first herd at the age of 12 and previously tended to goats as part of a conservation project in the Burren.

“I was born and bred on a farm. I’m used to working with goats, cows, pigs and donkeys. The goats connect with you on a more personal level,” she said.

Until the 1940s, much of the heathland was grazed by goats and other livestock. This new generation have a five-day working week, sent out to prune the hedges during the day and brought back to their sheds at night.

“The goats are there to do a job… They are nature’s grazers; they wander, they browse, they nibble,” she said.

Her shepherding role involves data collection and breeding management, she added, so “there is more to it than just heading up to the hills like Heidi”.

Ms Jeuken said the goats must adapt quickly to their new suburban surroundings, as they will be stationed on public land where people walk with their dogs.

“Once they know who is the leader and who to follow they can be managed,” she explained.

For Fingal County Council’s biodiversity officer, Hans Visser, the conservation project has been a long time coming. Howth’s wildfires have become an “increasing problem” in recent years, with some residents forced out of their homes due to the spreading flames this summer.

Gorse, the most flammable of the plants on the land, needs to be maintained, and “strategic fire break” gaps must be created to contain any fire outbreak.

“We could do this with machinery and get diggers in there, or we thought we could do this with livestock like it used to be done… Grazing is a lot more sustainable than taking to the land with machinery,” he said.

The strategy should help Dublin Fire Brigade whenever a blaze occurs on the land, explained Mr Visser: “Part of the landscape might burn, but as soon as the fire reaches the part that we have grazed its intensity will burn out.”

Goats tended to the land at Howth until the middle of the last century, and ever since their departure “wildfires have become the dominant feature”, Mr Visser said.

The project was originally supposed to get underway in 2018, but Mr Visser said the farm land where they were to be stationed had completely burned out that year.

“Shielmartin burned this summer for about six weeks… Particularly with climate change, these types of fires are only going to increase,” he said.

The project is being pursued in close consultation with local residents, who were adamant that no fencing should be erected on the open land. Mr Visser said herding technology from Norway will keep the goats from wandering out of bounds, as they get a small, painless shock when crossing a threshold.

If this group of 25 goats proves successful there is scope for expanding the herd further in the future, said Mr Visser. Parts of Howth’s peatlands have already burned to such an extent that a new rocky surface has been exposed beneath, he said, which is “what we don’t want”

“With Shielmartin, huge chunks of that landscape are completely burned and will take a few years to grow back,” he said.

The North Dublin area “loses everything” in terms of nature preservation if the fires are allowed to continue ravaging the landscape, Mr Visser said, adding: “It is important we make sure that does not happen.”