Invasive Alien Species in Northern Ireland

Capra domestic, Feral Goat

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Capra domestic
© Tom Ennis
Capra domestic
© Tom Ennis
Capra domestic
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Capra domestic 
 
Introduction
The goat was one of the first animals to be domesticated by man. It was introduced to Britain by neolithic farmers over 3000 years ago. Goats were kept for their milk and meat but the hair, horns and skin were also used to make a variety of items including cloth, wigs, musical instruments and parchment.
Goats were popular domestic animals until the 1700s when sheep farming began to take over. Goats are very hardy and any escapees readily adapt to living in the wild.
 
Description
Feral goats are smaller than modern domestic goats. Adults weigh between 35-75kg, males (billies) are heavier than females (nannies). They have long shaggy coats which vary in colour from white to dark brown, black, grey and piebald. The tail is long and flat with no hair on the underside. Both sexes usually have backward sweeping horns that grow continuously, some males have horns nearly a metre long. A thickened pad of skin (callus) is present on the knees of the front legs. A tuft of hair under the chin (beard) is present in males and most females. Male goats have a particularly strong body odour.
 
Country of origin
Domestic stock
 
Current distribution
Feral goats have a worldwide distribution. In Britain they are usually found in isolated mountainous areas in Scotland, northern and western England and Wales. They also occur on many offshore islands.
 
Location in Ireland
Small groups are found across Northern Ireland in isolated hilly and mountainous areas and on the coastal cliffs of north and east Antrim. In County Fermanagh they occur mainly in woodland and on some islands in Lough Erne. In the Republic of Ireland wild goats are found in isolated areas mainly in the western counties. The Burren National Park, County Clare has a number of large herds. They are also found on a number of islands off the west coast of Ireland.
 
Life cycle
Goats are browsers and eat whatever is available from grasses, heather and sedges in summer to gorse and heather in winter. Bark stripping can be a problem in some areas.
Goats like to live together in family groups. Males and females usually form separate groups except at mating time. In the autumn (rutting season) male goats fight with each other to gain access to females that are ready to breed. Male goats smell even worse at this time due to special musk glands becoming more active. Young goats (kids) are born in early spring. For the first few days the kids are left in a sheltered hiding place; when they are stronger they join their mother and the rest of the group.
 
Wildlife and habitat impacts
Goats have little or no impact on native wildlife. They may provide a useful food source for one of our rarest birds of prey, the golden eagle.
Goat eating habits can have both positive and negative effects on the environment. By browsing on unwanted woody plants they can help maintain plant diversity, particularly in grassland. In environmentally sensitive areas like the Burren, goats help control invasive scrub species such as willow. However if goat herds are not managed properly they can become too large and may damage sensitive areas by overgrazing.
Goats can also cause damage by bark stripping and browsing on tree seedlings which may prevent native woodland regeneration.
 
Key vectors
Goats have been both intentionally and accidentally released into the wild in Ireland over hundreds of years.
 
What you can do as an individual
Report goat sightings to CEDaR, Botany Department, Sciences Division, National Museums Northern Ireland, 153 Bangor Road, Cultra, Holywood, County Down BT18 0EU. Tel: 028 9039 5256, email cedar.info[at]nmni.com.
 
Management measures
In environmentally sensitive areas it may be necessary to manage goat herds by relocation or culling. Fencing can also be used in some circumstances to prevent goats from accessing sensitive areas.
 
Further information
Links
Invasive Species in Ireland
Northern Ireland's Mammals, Amphibians & Reptiles
British Feral Goat Research Group
The Mammal Society Goat Fact Sheet
Burren Feral Goat Campaign
 
Literature
Hayden, T. and Harrington, R. (2000). Exploring Irish Mammals. Town House and Country House Ltd., Dublin.
 
Text written by:
Angela Ross, Curator of Vertebrates, Ulster Museum