How to Rewild

Goats

HomeGuides

Goats
Animal Guide

Contents

Perhaps the most charismatic of our livestock, goats are also some of the least well-understood. While these animals have inhabited our island since the Stone Age, there is very little scientific research into their impacts on British ecosystems.

So, we’ve dug into some case studies from across the UK, and created one of our own, to help you understand the value of goats in nature recovery and regenerative agriculture.

A Caveat

Goats have a complicated place in nature recovery. These aren’t a native species and don’t have a similar function to any of our native wild herbivores. They eat scrub and strip the bark of trees, resetting woodland and scrubland to grassland when present at moderate to high densities. Yet they are still used for habitat management in some special ecosystems.

Goats are easy to keep and fairly widespread on smallholdings (including our own), so knowing how to work with these animals in a nature recovery context could be valuable. This article explores the areas where goats may be beneficial for nature in Britain, but it does not recommend acquiring goats for the purposes of ecosystem restoration except in very specific cases.

Caution is advised, as these charismatic animals are prone to escaping, voracious feeders and prolific breeders which have caused the destruction of many ecosystems worldwide. They can be beneficial at low density under proper management, as feral animals with population management in exposed rock locations, and in the short term, for control of invasive plants like Rosa rugosa or Carpobrotus edulis.

Goats on cliffside
Goats can scale seemingly-vertical cliff faces, and are notorious escape artists.

About the Animal

A History of the Goat

Like sheep, goats have been present in Britain since the Stone Age, brought here by humans as we migrated from the animals’ ancestral home, which is likely to have been in the fertile crescent (today’s Middle East). Over time these animals have adapted to our ecosystems, yet our ecosystems have not yet had time to adapt to them, particularly as there are few feral goat populations in Britain.

Some heritage goat breeds like British Primitive can stay out in all weather, year round, making them ideal for low intensity conservation projects. On smallholdings, goats are valued for their milk, which is produced over a long period of time, even in the absence of the young. Goats are also farmed for their meat, with males typically slaughtered at a year old, as they aren’t as valuable due to not producing milk or young.

How Goats Eat

When eating, goats are very random browsers, and will move regularly. They prefer the leaves of scrub, but will also eat broadleaved plants, including thistles. They can climb small trees to eat the leaves, though will typically do so only in the absence of quality forage at ground level. They may also strip the bark of younger trees, often ringbarking them, which causes the tree to die (or die back to the roots). This happens most often in mid to late winter, though we’ve seen it even at the height of summer! Hawthorn and Field Maple are fairly resilient to this activity as goats seem uninterested in them, but most other British trees are susceptible.

Once the most succulent leaves are gone, goats will move on from the area. They will eat scrub stems, but usually only when the scrub is fresh, or when no other quality forage is available in the immediate area such as in winter months. They may graze on grass when scrub and broadleaved plants aren’t available, though this is typically the point at which goats will begin escaping.

Scrub isn’t only tackled from the edge, but also from within, with the animals climbing into dense thickets (and through hedgerows) and eating vegetation above them. This opens up scrub edges, reducing encroachment and allowing more light penetration, benefitting the ground flora. However, it is also likely to disturb nesting activity, particularly in the Spring and Summer season, and can damage livestock-proof hedgerows.

Goats grazing on hedgerow
Goats have a tendency to eat scrub from the inside-out, which can cause damage to stockproof hedges.

Logistics of Keeping Goats

Goats are notorious for escaping from fenced enclosures – this typically happens when there is better forage outside than inside. However, a roaming herd of goats can do a lot of damage to neighbouring land, so fencing is a priority in most projects. 

Fencing

If using electric fence, the recommendation is 5 strands of high tensile wire – tape electric fences tend to pose little problem for goats. Regular wire fences that are 4ft high, ideally with a barbed wire top, seem to keep most goats enclosed, so long as there is nothing that the animals can use as a step near the fence to gain height and jump over it. 

An alternative to fencing is the use of NoFence – a solar-powered, GPS unit, worn on a collar. This warns the goat if they approach a boundary with a musical tone, then delivers a very mild electric shock as they pass beyond the boundary. It’s an effective system, and is in wide use in the UK, though there are some caveats. Over winter, solar power may not be enough to keep the units charged, especially in shady areas; the units shouldn’t be used to separate herds and there is a minimum and maximum size for a pasture.

Tree Protection

Goats will treat any tree in, or near their pasture like the Holy Grail. Their life won’t be complete until they have succeeded in eating the leaves, so trees need a very high level of protection to survive in goat pasture. Ordinary tree tubes with wooden stakes will be pushed, bent and slowly torn down, until the tree within can be consumed. 

Trees the other side of a wire fence will be reached by leaning across as far as a goat head can fit, and wedging horns through narrow gaps. Don’t underestimate the lengths a goat will go to, to reach a tree – we’ve seen goats eating every leaf on a Crab Apple through two layers of wire fencing, pulling the branches through one at a time.

A fairly large buffer zone is necessary to protect the trunk, and mesh, rather than gappy wire is probably your best bet, reinforced by stout tree stakes. An alternative is something like a parkland tree guard, or an enclosure with high fences, dedicated to tree establishment.

Dogs and Foxes

While goats have formidable horns and a powerful strike, the regular presence of dogs can be an issue. Goats will tend to treat dogs as a threat, and retreat, although if cornered, they may defend themselves. Dogs can become familiar with a herd of goats over time, and even play with them, but strange animals can be distressing. It may be worth keeping goats off public footpaths, or asking dog walkers to kindly keep their animals on a lead.

Foxes might seem like less of a threat, and they’re not an issue for adult goats. But they can take young kids, especially just after birth. Protecting the mother around the time of birth with predator-proof fencing can prevent this risk, although this is more of an issue in areas with a high density of foxes.

Goats grazing on undercliff
The scrubby vegetation of Bournemouth Undercliff, prior to the introduction of goats.

Case Studies

In certain places, the goat’s capacity to resist scrub encroachment and/or its nimble feet are a huge benefit.

Bournemouth Undercliff – Undercliff

Above the sea wall in Bournemouth stretches a several mile long section of undercliff habitat. This would historically have been gradually eroded, but the action of the sea at its base has been blocked by the sea wall. Cliff slides occasionally occur, and the valuable property and infrastructure at the clifftop make maintenance of this habitat a high priority.

Goats were introduced to a fenced area east of Bournemouth Pier from 2009, as a way of reducing the growth of larger vegetation, and controlling the spread of the invasive succulent Carpobrotus edulis. The goal was to shift the habitat towards Acid Grassland / Heathland, and this has largely been successful in areas managed with goats. The herd has expanded over the years from a pilot project with 10 goats to 50, then 100, as the habitat quality improved.

Reception from the public has generally been enthusiastic, though the initial 6ft goat fencing was replaced by 4ft fences after complaints from residents.

Cheddar Gorge – Limestone Gorge

In this limestone gorge in Somerset, a population of feral goats roams the steep cliff faces alongside feral Soay Sheep. The combined activity of these two sets of herbivores keeps scrub at bay and grassland cropped short. The goats were introduced to the area during the 90’s to help with conservation efforts. This protects sensitive wildflowers which are endemic to this area, like the Cheddar Pink.

The population of both sheep and goats needs to be managed to avoid overgrazing, and they are counted each year in December, when visibility is high and animals wander in groups. The animals are a popular sight with the many visitors at this tourist hotspot, and cattle grids are used to prevent them escaping the area. 

RSPB – Population Management

As described above, goats have a long history in Britain, and one of the most culturally-significant is the herd at Inversnaid. On this land, a herd of goats is said to have hidden Robert the Bruce from his enemies in the 14th century. The same breed of goats still browses the landscape today, although it is likely that the current stock were reintroduced around the turn of the 20th century. This key fact was not covered in the media.

The RSPB was advised to cull this population (via hunting) to half its number (from 60 to 30) due to the impact that a combination of goat and deer browsing was having on woodland regeneration in a SSSI. The resulting PR disaster resulted in a huge media outcry and death threats to RSPB staff. Even experts agreed that the lowest sustainable population of these British Primitive goats was approximately 50.

As a result of the controversy, a subsequent population management programme at the same site was carried out using contraceptive darts. The new system is likely to have effects lasting for up to four years. Contraceptives are becoming increasingly popular as a non-lethal system for controlling mammal populations on conservation sites worldwide.

Somerset – Pilot Project

Our pilot project in Somerset is largely a rewilding site, with an orchard, 7 ponds and a small permaculture area at the end. There is a public footpath through the centre, with new fences to either side, to restrict dog access into the ponds. Our neighbours have a herd of 7 goats, and we’ve been experimenting with grazing them on our land.

At first, the goats were allowed access into the southern block, for a few hours at a time. Their activity had a largely positive impact on structural diversity, increasing the variability of vegetation height, and slowing scrub encroachment into grassland. They browsed randomly, and their droppings will help to alter the uniform nutrient density of the soil. The goats also benefitted from access to the ponds, especially during drought conditions.

However, they did tend to rapidly destroy large areas of plants in one go, like flowering Fleabane, reducing nectar availability (having a knock-on effect on butterflies). This may have a benefit, by reducing the dominance of certain species, and could increase overall plant diversity, though it nutrient-rich areas it seems to have resulted in more vigorous grass growth. On one occasion, the goats ate several square metres of reedbed down to ground level, which suggests that they may be a valuable tool for managing this habitat, though this was summer growth during nesting season, and other studies have found they tend to avoid standing water.

After half a year, the goats learned how to topple a 1.2m tree shelter with wooden stake, and this swiftly led to the destruction of many more plastic tubes. On one occasion, an 8ft tall Black Poplar was snapped in half, leaves entirely eaten and bark stripped clean, killing it down to ground level.

Removing them from the land was more difficult than expected, as, knowing that this patch had good forage, they repeatedly broke back through the hedgerow. However, they tended to stick to the same areas that they had previously used for feeding, despite passing through largely unaffected suitable foraging habitat to get to this land.

Some livestock show this ‘hefting’ behaviour, where they will return to a place where they’ve repeatedly grazed with a shepherd, grazier or farmer. This shows the potential for humans to manage herd behaviour, when close, regular supervision is possible. The breakthroughs meant that significant fencing work had to take place to restrict their movement, though it’s likely that this would have been needed at some point in the future, if they had discovered the high quality forage in the pilot project.

Now, we’re still using the goats for management, but only in the public footpath zone – two connected strips of 20x30m and 5x100m, where 4ft high fencing with a single strand of barbed wire effectively restricts them from accessing neighbouring land and our own project. Most of the tree shelters in this section have now been knocked over, but we are continuing to monitor the progress of the habitat, to see how goats affect biodiversity over time. Tree regeneration (largely from planted willows) is almost completely stopped now, due to their browsing activity.

This is an isolated section of footpath with low use by dog walkers, and the goats are generally supervised from a distance while grazing. Response to their presence from passers-by has been very positive, partly influenced by interpretation boards at the entrance to the project.

Goat pasture
It's hard not to feel affectionate for goats, as they're charismatic animals, with dog-like personalities. Grazing them for conservation just takes some care.

Summary

Goats are charismatic animals, which are easy to care for and good company, even acting like dogs in some cases. They produce valuable milk and meat products and breed easily. They can be a useful animal for clearing overgrown land, especially on smallholdings, and are often already part of a farm system when landowners begin considering nature recovery.

Goats can be useful in scrub control, invasive plant removal and perhaps even reedbed management. But in a woodland context, they can stop natural regeneration of new trees and debark young saplings, slowly killing off the habitat. In scrubland they will effectively remove bushes over time, which can be of benefit, though they may also eat other valuable broadleaved wildflowers. In habitats with exposed rock, their nimble feet and broad appetite can help them maintain a scrubby grassland.

These livestock can be managed effectively for nature recovery, but it may be a balancing act, requiring effective supervision, population control, and substantial investment into fencing and/or GPS collars.

Further information about keeping goats can be found from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Contents