The Goats

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In June 2011 six goats arrived in the Gully to help with conservation of rare plants. Mandy Leivers explains why and how the goats benefit the patches of grassland where these plants live. Robert Westlake gives the Downs Ranger’s perspective, and John Partridge the Zoo’s contribution. Terry Hannan, head gardener, tells what it’s like working with the goats.

Avon Gorge Goat (Helen Hall AGDWP)


Mandy Leivers outdoors:

So we’ve just come up to one of the kissing gates, the gates which take you into the fenced area where the goats live. Got a number of signs here and this particular sign on this gate is just asking people to look after the goats, or help us to look after the goats, so things that you should and shouldn’t do, lilke not dropping litter, make sure your dog’s on a lead, no fires and barbecues. These went up when the goats came in in June. See if we can spot one.

The Avon Gorge is considered to be one of the top three sites for rare plants in England. There are twenty-seven nationally rare and scarce plants growing here, which is quite amazing for a site that’s so close to a major city centre. most of the rare plants like the Bristol onion and Bristol rockcress are very small, so they’re easily shaded out by bramble and ivy and scrub and trees and we have a huge problem both in the Gorge and on the Downs with introduced trees that have escaped from people’s gardens, things like cotoneaster and holm oak, the evergreen oaks. Then in 2004 the Project, the Avon Gorge and Downs Wildlife Project looked at the Gully and basically there were just tiny, tiny pockets of these grassland plants left. And if the project hdn’t come in and cleared away the non-native trees and the bramble and the ivy, these plants would have been made extinct or lost in the Avon gorge. And so every year conservationists were going in and doing conservation work, cutting down the trees, bramble and the ivy, connecting upt hose tiny pockets of grassland with the aim creating a larger viable habitat. But it’s a really huge area so it’s kind of labour intensive, and very costly to do it that way. We actually spent about five years talking to other conservation projects one of their advisers came and had a look at the Gully and they had a look at the kind of vegetation that we had, and what we were trying to achieve, in terms of the return of the, the grassland plants, so the sort of the end result that we wanted, and they suggested goats cos they’re actually browsers rather than grazers, so they like to eat woody species, which is exactly the thing that we’ve got problems with. And because they’re primitive goats their, their stomachs aren’t able to cope with eating grasses and wild flowers, so they’re kind of the perfect animal really for our site, because what they’re gonna do is basically what the conservation workers do laboriously by hand but the’re gonna be here all year round, just nibbling away, eating back that (NOISE) bramble and ivy and the, and then the grassland plants will flourish and bring back all those insects and other animals as well.

Robert Westlake:

OK I’m Robert Westlake and I’m the Downs Ranger. The goats were sleected form a large herd on the Great Orme in North Wales and two of the Downs team and the conservation officer actually went up to assist with the round-up and they brought the goats back and they were transported up to the Downs in a pony box, released into their new compound and they’ve been happily ensconsed in there ever since. I am actually their legal keeper, but several members of the Downs team have also been trained in animal welfare, and they take care of the day to day welfare of the goats. We are very proud, yeah, we continue to be proud, it’s a very good project, and its won us a lot of accolades.

Mandy Leivers:

They came in June and it was really exciting cos they’re beautiful animals, they’re, they’re from the Great Orme in North Wales, which has very similar sort of terrain and limestone grassland, this special habitat that we have. and the reason we chose or were advised to, to take makes rather than females, is that male goats obviously are quite big and can look after themselves and there’s obviously a lot of dog walking around the Downs so we needed animals that looked quite impressive that no-one would mess with. The other thing is that they’ve all been neutered, so they’re not gonna breed and they’re a single sex flock of male goats, so we, we’re sort of avoiding pitfalls that other conservation projects have had, so we’re learning, you know, sort of by their mistakes really,

John Partridge:

Well I’m John Partridge, I’m the senior curator for animals at Bristol Zoo Gardens. Our veterinary department castrated the male goats and are involved, or will be involved, if there’s any care needed from a veterinary point of view. But of course they are feral animals, they’re wild animals, they’ll manage quite happily on the Downs and on the gorge. Althought they have a wide expanse to use on the Downs those animals do have to be contained and we were able to give some advice on fencing and how to manage them as well. So yes we were pleased with that involvement and to be part of, a small part of the team that’s been bringing them onto the gorge.

Mandy Leivers inside;

For the first couple of weeks, I came across people all the time who’d heard that goats had come and they were looking for them and there’s great excitement, people of all ages, I saw, you know, sort of people bringing very small children on their shoulders to look over the fence and spot the goats and older people, you know, sort of like not going too far from the car, you know, just sort of getting out on Circular Road and coming through the gates and having a look to see if they could spot them.

Mandy Leivers outside;

So sometimes when I’ve come over here they’ve just been sort of sat in that sunny spot opposite us there in the gulley, just chewing away and looking quite relaxed. They’re big white shaggy goats with wonderful coats and huge horns, so they are very beautiful animals and because they are white they are normally quite easy to spot. Can’t see them though.

Mandy Leivers inside;

It’s a bit too soon to see very clearly because they’ve got a lot of vegetation to eat, so that’s a problem at the moment, as you sort of go and you kind of like, you have to know where to look for them because quite often they’re in sort of dense areas of vegetation, kind of chewing away but you don’t have to stay for very long before you can spot them. so we’ve got two very young ones, two middle-aged ones and two slightly older males and you can, you can actually, at the moment they’re just sort of settling in, working out the sort of pecking order within their herd, so sometimes you can hear them clashing horns and it’s absolutely fantastic as, you know, walk round the edge of the Gully, you can hear just this knock of, of, you know, running into each other and that, that, they’re not doing it in a very violent way, they’re just sort of testing each other to see where they fit.

Terry Hannan:

My names Terry Hannan and I’m the Head Gardener for the Downs, managing a team of gardeners in grounds maintenance tasks, and the goats are actually one of those tasks, one of the many many tasks that we perform. The team, I mean first of all they have a responsibility on a daily basis to make sure that the goats are healthy, that they’ve not got out, they’re not in danger, they’ve got water and generally that everything’s alright. It does bring a completely different dimension to the job I would have to say, because if you’ve got something that’s living, breathing, you feel as though you’ve got an added responsibility to it so generally speaking the team would be involved with machinery, we put it away in a garage at night and when Christmas comes we can put it away for a couple of days and that’s the end of it really but of course with animals, you can’t do that. You’ve got a much bigger, longer responsibility. Most of us have quite liked that responsibility. We try not to get too fond but because we don’t particularly want the goats to get too friendly with people because we don’t want the public sort of interacting with them that well, but I mean you do, you get to know the individuals, you know one goat is not exactly the same as the other, I mean the herd we’ve got is a herd of six goats. We’ve got one alpha male, and he’s about 4 or 5 and then the others are younger, they’re about 2 or 3. They have got certain characteristics, I mean we do call the alpha male ‘Daddy’, do tend to call them names but that’s if you like not something that’s encouraged,

Mandy Leivers outside:

So we’re just standing on the north face of the gulley, so the bit that’s up by Sea Walls and we are looking over to the south side of the gulley which is sort of bathed in beautiful sunlight at the moment, and there’s a big patch of limestone grassland over there which is where the goats quite often hang out, and I can see a really big difference from when they first arrived here in the gorge, where they’ve eaten quite a lot of that scrubby vegetation over there, and really opened out the area. Now I can’t actually see a goat at the moment – can you spot one?

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