WATCH: What are a herd of rare breed goats doing on a popular nature reserve?
PUBLISHED: 13:50 30 January 2019 | UPDATED: 10:35 01 February 2019
Handsome Bagot goats joined Exmoor ponies at Suffolk Wildlife Trust's Knettishall Heath site earlier this week, as part of a long-term heath restoration plan.
A total of 14 rare breed Bagot billy goats were brought onto Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Knettishall Heath nature reserve yesterday in the hope they will help maintain habitat that is home to rare animals and plants.
It is hoped the distinctive black and white goats, which prefer to browse on scrub, bramble and the bark of silver birch, will play a crucial role in the conservation grazing project at the reserve – enabling rare heathland species to flourish.
Knettishall Heath, in west Suffolk north of Bury St Edmunds, already supports a herd of Exmoor ponies that roam through the 250 acre grazing enclosure. But, while the ponies are excellent at maintaining the grassy open habitats needed for numerous Breckland specialist species, it is hoped the goats, which naturally feed on woody vegetation, will be effective at ensuring the wooded areas do not encroach on the valuable heathland.
Head of property for the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Steve Aylward, said increasingly rare breed ponies, cattle and goats are being used for conservation because they are suited to fending for themselves in wild places.
“Bagots are hardy and really robust, and are happily at home on windswept cliff edges, so a nice site like this will be a walk in the park for them,” he said.
“They are a group animal that settle in numbers and look out for each other.
“We are hoping they will endear themselves to the local people. We have 80,000 visitors at Knettishall Heath each year, who we hope will enjoy seeing the goats in the same way they come to see the ponies.
“The ponies have done really well but the goats are browsers rather than grazers, and will feed on birch shrub and pine seedlings.”
Return to heathland
Through the hard work of the goats and ponies, the aim is to reduce the build up of brambles and trees and restore the heathland habitat.
As recently as the 1940s Knettishall was all heathland whereas today only around a third of its 400 acres remains so. The turning point was the introduction of the deadly myxomatosis virus in the early 1950s which caused a collapse in the local rabbit population.
When rabbit numbers were higher, their constant scraping, burrowing and ground disturbance maintained the open lowland heath and created a mosaic of broken ground and sandy areas - a defining feature of the Brecks, favoured by plants like rare spring sedge, Breckland thyme and purple milkvetch; ground-nesting birds such as skylarks and woodlarks and insects like the green tiger beetle.
Ranger at the reserve Charlie McMurray said the introduction of the goats would mean there would be less need for mechanical intervention and herbicide use to control scrub – reducing costs and benefitting less mobile wildlife that might be disturbed by cutting and clearing by humans.
She said: “The Bagot goat is a charismatic and primitive breed that is used to living in similar habitat to Knettishall Heath. We hope that their movements across the reserve will result in even better conditions for the rare Breckland flora and fauna that exist on the heath.”
According to the Bagot Goat Society, the Bagot is believed to be Britain’s oldest breed of goat with a documented ancestry, which dates back to the end of the 14th Century.
While these animals are workers, they are also handsome creatures in their own right. The goats, which have long, curved horns, are not considered as flighty as domestic goat breeds or sheep, and being a hardy robust animal are very self-sufficient.