The Sheep and the Goats

13 Nov 2006

A cull is underway to eliminate up to 25% of the feral goats in the hills of Snowdonia in north Wales to allow sheep to graze more freely, to protect young trees and to reduce the danger of car accidents.

A committee of landowners and conservationists from the National Trust and the Snowdonia national park claims that the population of wild goats has almost doubled over the last five years to around 500.

In a set of briefing papers, the park authorities write that the goats ‘can potentially kill entire cohorts of trees. They can severely affect tree regeneration. There is also evidence that they do cause short-term localized loss of forage to farmers. Goats have been fenced out of sensitive areas, captured and removed. However, fencing is largely ineffective, live capture results in significant stress to the animals and finding “homes” for the captured goats is becoming increasingly difficult’.

‘There is no intention to remove them, but we need to deal with their growing numbers,’ added a Countryside Council for Wales spokesman at the weekend. ‘Local residents are worried about damage to their gardens and the real danger posed by the goats’ feeding habits around highways.’

The wild goats, known as British ‘primitives’, used to be an essential part of the north Welsh landscape and provided the locals with meat, hair, horn, hoof and milk. They also had an ecological function in that they served to clear scrub and protect rare plants.

Not everyone is in total agreement with the goat cull. ‘We’re not pro- or anti-culling,’ says Shirley Goodyer, an environmental biologist with the British feral goat research group, ‘but it can be very hard to tell the difference between damage done by sheep and goats. Culling can be indiscriminate. We may be reducing the breed too far. No full census has been done. These are some of the least known populations.’

In the meantime, the traditional paso de las ovejas (parade of the sheep), was held in Madrid yesterday. The event, in which hundreds of sheep cross the Spanish capital from north to south, is a tribute to Spain’s drove roads and transhumance routes.

The practice of transhumance, for centuries a benchmark of Spanish rural life, has been revived partly thanks to the efforts of Jesus Garzón, winner of the Slow Food Award for the Defense of Biodiversity in 2000 and founder of the Asociación Trashumancia y Naturaleza. The association has improved the life of shepherds in the mountains, fitting their cramped cottages and huts with all mod cons – from hot water to electricity to an almost daily supply of bread and fruit. Shepherds are even provided with mobile phones.

Today, villages and cities (including Madrid, Seville and Valladolid) have grown accustomed once more to the passing of vast flocks of sheep, and a network of solidarity has been re-established between shepherds and citizens. The Spanish mountains are being saved from abandonment thanks to Garzón’s work, and the Spanish government has granted him a piece of land on which he has created a farm devoted to species in danger of extinction.

The Guardian

Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

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