A shaggy-haired, long-horned native mammal, long considered “wild”, has been given an important new role in conservation. And a tough but skinny hill sheep of the west, promoted for its ancient genes, could be pressed into similar service.
The “wild”mammal is the Old Irish Goat, now officially recognised as an Irish native rare breed. Fostered by enthusiasts and managed by digital technology, it is controlling the growth of unwanted plants on opposite sides of the island.
One is gunnera tinctoria, the alien and invasive “giant rhubarb” of Connacht. The other is gorse, encouraged by climate change to spread inflammably on higher ground, including Howth Head in Co Dublin.
The goat’s new status follows decades of study and genetic research based on feral flocks on hills around Mulranny, Co Mayo, on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Stuffed goats’ heads on local house walls provided the first material. DNA comparisons with museum specimens highlighted the Mulranny flocks as genetically similar to extinct “old goat” populations on Scotland’s Isle of Skye in the 1800s.
The goats were admired a century ago by the great naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger as he climbed among bushes of Mediterranean heather on rocky hillsides above Mulranny. As he wrote in The Way That I Went, “they fit in so naturally among heather and gnarled rock, and mount a miniature Matterhorn with such a regal, king-of-the-castle air!”
The alien heather remains a favourite food. But goats, notoriously, will browse on any nourishing growth. Crushed gorse, or whins, was once a fodder for cattle, but goats munch the bush directly.
On the Hill of Howth gorse has thrived, fuelling destructive summer wildfires. But goats are wanderers and climbers: how can they be kept munching at the gorse and not the garden shrubs of Howth’s suburban mansions?
“Digital paddocking” is a new solution, needing no goatherds or fences. Volunteers in the Old Irish Goat Society have fitted chosen animals with collars with a tracking system, plus alerts that keep them to GPS boundaries. The alerts are a series of intensifying noises they have been trained to avoid.
In 2022 this grazing system won a design award from the Irish Landscape Institute, which praised this as “a high-impact, interesting and valuable project, astutely posing professional evolution ongoing in our changing world”. Rather than rewilding it is a redomestication.
The potential of the goats to limit the gorse fires of Ireland’s nature reserves has encouraged the Old Irish Goat Society to press for their legal protection. It also hopes to rescue the breed from its “dire straits” in the Burren, which result in mass removal and cross-breeding with domestic animals. Goats of doubtful DNA are unlikely to rate as Old Irish.
Mulranny seems likely to remain the stronghold of an anímal whose history could reach back to Ireland’s early settlers.
The “native” sheep of Connacht helped support the people of crowded clachans, surrounded by potato ridges. Their ancestors were notably small, with white, narrow faces and shoulders and a lean body. Their worth was in their wool, which was very fine and suitable for spinning and weaving, but it probably took six animals to yield a stone of it. As blackface and other improved breeds took over, these “natives” were pushed out to graze the seaweed on the shore.
What the sheep were like has gradually emerged from a project for their regeneration as a rare heritage breed, aptly named the Cladoiri, or sheep of the shore. Owned by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and homed in the Connemara National Park, they will be given a future in conservation grazing and as an added interest for eco-tourism.
As a breed they were deemed effectively extinct by the 1990s, but their distinctive DNA has been salvaged through the personal interest of sheep enthusiasts. Sean Cadden, a retired farm adviser, and farmer Tom King, both of Westport, sought out a small flock of Cladoir-like sheep in south Connemara. They were bought and added to by the Connemara National Park, and DNA testing found the distinctive strain of the breed still strongly present in most of them. Local farmers, members of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association, will help in captive breeding.