Ancient goats in the line of fire

AMAZING the conundrums the world of nature throws up. We have a situation in the Burren, Co Clare, where a campaign is underway to save a herd of Old Irish goats, while 12,000 miles away in New Zealand the conservation authorities are intent in wiping out another ancient breed of goats.

Jane Murphy, of Ardsallagh Goats, Carrigtwohill, Co Cork, a well-known supplier of goats milk products, is trying to create awareness of a plan in NZ to decimate Arapawa goats which live on Arapawa Island.

According to Murphy, the NZ Department of Conservation wants to cull the goats in order to protect a rare snail. The goats are also said to be a threat to plants and coastal vegetation.

It’s a strange case of goat lovers battling snail and plant lovers.

Murphy is supporting an international outcry against what the NZ government is trying to do. The cull had been planned to take place earlier this month, but has been postponed until March as opposition mounts.

“The Arapawa are a very unusual breed of goats and there are only 300 to 350 left in the world. Most are in New Zealand, while there are six in England a few in the United States,” she said.

The plan is to use helicopters from which the goats in Arapawa are to be shot indiscriminately and cruelly, she added.

“I believe it’s most important to stop the culling and conserve the breed. There’s a worldwide campaign against the planned culling,” Murphy said.

“At a time when everyone is talking about conservation, it seems like insanity to go in and slaughter a breed which is not doing any harm to anybody.”

The Arapawa are an interesting breed of feral (once farmed, now wild) goats. Smaller than modern milking breeds, they come in a variety of colours — patterns of white, fawn, brown and black being common — and have distinctively patterned faces.

It is believed these goats are a surviving remnant of the Old English breed, possibly descendants of a pair released by James Cook in 1773. The colour and markings of the animals have been cited as supporting this idea.

Meanwhile, there are fears that purity of the strain of the Old Irish goat in the Burren is under threat. These goats can also cause problems for farmers by knocking stone walls — which could result in REPS scheme grant losses — and spoiling grasslands.

Many of the Burren’s feral goats are recent additions, having been abandoned by their owners. Experts, however, have identified a small number of the rare and native Old Irish goat among the herds.

These old goats represent an invaluable and unique genetic resource, but their status is now described as ‘critical’ due to ongoing interbreeding with tame goats and also because of the culling of goat herds.

In recent years, the explosive growth in the population of feral goats in the Burren has resulted in the culling of large numbers of goats by local farmers and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, who are concerned about the impact of goat browsing on tree species. As the feral goat is not a protected species, such culls are likely to continue and could sound the death knell for the few remaining Old Irish goats.

A new conservation project is trying to address this sensitive issue. The BurrenLIFE Project (BLP) is among the first, major farming for conservation projects in Ireland.

In co-operation with local farmers, the BLP is erecting a secure, 22-acre enclosure in which a breeding population of Old Irish goats can be kept.

Goats have a long association with the Burren. Excavations at Poulnabrone dolmen uncovered goat bones, indicating that these were an important part of the mixed farm systems of the Stone Age, more than 5,000 years ago. In more recent times, the goat became known as the poor man’s cow and was the difference between survival and starvation for many Burren farm families.

This pilot project will not only support the conservation of the genetic resource, but will also allow the BLP to monitor the impact of feral goats on scrub and grasslands and look at their use as a conservation grazing tool.

If successful, according to Brendan Dunford, project manager with the BurrenLIFE project, the breeding programme may even be extended to other farmers in the Burren who have already expressed an interest in participating.

Dr Dunford said protecting the Old Irish goat is important for a number of reasons, including genetic heritage, cultural value, tourism and recreational potential. With the support of Burren farmers, the ancient breed may be protected for future generations.

Similar projects are already happening in other areas, including various national parks, where other wild animals, such as deer, are actively managed to keep their bloodlines pure and ensure their survival as a healthy species.

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