Goats who stare at men
Country sights and sounds
On the steep, thickly-wooded slopes near Lynton and Lynmouth we found wild goats in abundance; shaggy-haired, long-horned Billies sleeping alone among the heather and bilberry bushes around the Valley of the Rocks, and neater, trimmer, heavily pregnant nannies cropping spring flowers from gardens in these North Devon towns.
These goats are something of a tourist attraction, equally as much as the cliff railway, the eloquent river at Watersmeet, the wonderful scenery and the ice-cream made with real clotted cream, a local delight yet to be discovered this side of the Irish Sea.
Local folk seem to tolerate the regular visits of hungry animals to their gardens and the consequent ruination of herbaceous borders with good humour. They know that visitors will continue to arrive; money will come into the area, the tourist industry will provide local employment, and if the going gets tough there will always be a goat for the roasting pot.
Estimates as to the number of feral goats roaming the area vary from thirty or so up to a more realistic two hundred. Certainly, during our short visit, we saw scores of them, including several that were evidently very sick. The fate of these animals is causing something of a stir, with many locals and visitors expressing strong opinions as to what should and should not be done. Keep them or cull them?
Back at home in Mayo I got to thinking about the goats that live here. Occasionally, while walking the hills between Ross West and Pontoon, we meet up with them in huge numbers. They make quite a sight, especially when moving through one of narrow passes high among the rocks. Then they appear as an almost endless stream, an unbroken flow of curved horns over multi-patterned backs. Some of the mature males are almost as big as donkeys. A long stare from those cold, amber eyes makes one uncomfortable.
Not many people are even aware that these beasts are living in our midst. If they are so valued on Exmoor, why do we make so little of them? Find the females in May and June and they will have very young kids at foot. Joyously funny creatures, these will amaze us with their antics as they play chase up and down the steepest of slopes, displaying wonderful agility and remarkable athleticism.
Am I overstating things? Not at all!
If it were not for a small herd of Ws I would be there now, following them from peak to peak. Work; Weather; Wily trout; these set parameters within which I must operate.
Work is to be endured (and enjoyed from time to time). Weather is to look forward to – promises are made by wind and sky, yet the thing desired never quite seems to arrive. The trout are there, but finding them depends very much on the first two. Deer and badgers are next on the list, then red squirrels, or otters, then goats perhaps.
As to weather, one Devonshire man summed it up. ‘Tidden what you’d expect and tidden likely be what you’d want, but ’twill be there somehow.’
And that’s what we found throughout our holiday. On the days we carried a coat the sun beat down on us relentlessly, and when we finally went out without it we were wet through by torrential downpours which, while short-lived, cast a day’s worth of rain upon us in minutes.
When we went to look at the oak and the ash we found the former covered in leaves while the latter stood starkly bare. According to weather lore we should expect a fine summer; ‘If the oak is out before the ash, the world will only get a splash.’ Back here at home we have other things to look forward to; ‘If the ash is out before the oak, the world will surely get a soak.’ Yes, our own ash trees are more advanced than the oaks alongside which they grow.
We wouldn’t mind a bit of rain, as long as the north-east wind stays away. It was this that gave us our last two winters and kept the ground dry through the early part of the year. The rain will keep the hills green and keep the goats in their place. Drought will make a plague of them.