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Feral Goat

Simonside Billy © John Dalrymple

Feral Goats Capra hircus are not native to Britain. They were brought here in Neolithic times (about 5000 BP) as domestic stock, derived from the Bezoar Capra aegagrus, a native of the Middle East (Lever, 1985; Yalden, 1999). Most British herds are thought to be the descendants of domesticated stock that was allowed to go feral when sheep replaced goats as the favoured stock of upland farmers during the Middle Ages. The Feral Goats of the Cheviot Hills in Northumberland are thought to be some of the best examples of this primitive type of goat (S. Goodyer, British Feral Goat Research Group, pers. comm., 2005). Their appearance suggests little evidence of cross breeding with modern domestic goats which are bred for increased milk and meat yields and finer quality coats. Primitive British Feral Goats are relatively small, have ears which stand upright, horns in both sexes, and lack the toggles found on the face of modern dairy goats. Coats are long, coarse and shaggy. Colour varies from mostly dark brown to light grey with white patches. Each animal has different, characteristic markings on its body and face that make it relatively easy to identify individuals. Annual growth rings on the horns can be used to age the goat.

Feral Goats are well established in a number of locations in Britain and Ireland. “Wild” populations are found mainly in hilly areas: the Burren in the west of Ireland, Snowdonia in Wales, Lynton in Devon, some of the Scottish Western Isles including Jura, Mull and Rum, the north of mainland Scotland, the Southern Uplands and Dumfries and Galloway, and the herds that straddle the Scottish/English Border including Northumberland. In addition to the “wild” populations there are several small actively-managed herds which have been established relatively recently for conservation grazing purposes such as at Cheddar Gorge and Windsor Great Park. The Forestry Commission established a Wild Goat Park at Craigdews in Dumfries and Galloway as a visitor attraction. There are thought to be between 5,000 and 10,000 Feral Goats spread amongst 45 populations in the UK (Smith, 2005). This number will continue to change through time as populations are managed with some conserved, others removed and new ones created.

The long association of parts of Northumberland with goats is evident from place names such as Goatstones in the North Tyne and Ad Gefrin (now Yeavering Bell) which means “place of the hill of the goats”. It is unlikely that we will ever know the origins of most of the herds that have existed in the region but there are some interesting theories. For example, it has been suggested that the north Cheviot goats are the descendants of goats liberated by the monks of Lindisfarne in the 16th century when the monastery was dissolved. An alternative theory is that the goats’ ancestors were animals left to go feral when the Victorian cult of drinking whey from goat’s-milk in nearby Wooler went out of fashion. The restorative drinking of goat’s-milk was also suggested as the reason why many goats were found in Upper Coquetdale, particularly around Rothbury in the 19th century (Mennell and Perkins, 1864). Possibly one of the main reasons why goats were allowed to continue to roam in the hills long after they were kept to provide milk, meat or skins, was because hill shepherds thought favourably of them. It was believed that amongst their attributes goats could calm sheep, lead sheep safely to shelter, and could kill adders (Tegner, 1961; McDougall, 1975).

The Common Goat by Thomas Bewick

Over the last 100 years naturalists have often documented encounters with Feral Goats in the region. For example, in May 1915, whilst out on snow-covered Cheviot, Abel Chapman notes the presence of “nine wild goats – two carrying broad heads – 1000 feet above us on Auchenhope Cairn” (Chapman, 1924).

It is difficult to know the extent of local populations from these occasionally reported sightings. Fortunately some authors have attempted to get an idea of the presence of goats across wider areas during the same time period. Whitehead (1972) provides a gazetteer of the herds known to him, including several in Northumbria: Christianbury Crags on the Bewcastle Fells on the Cumbrian border; on the Northumberland side, goats at Plashetts, Kielderhead, Emblehope and Catcleugh; Callerhues at Blakelaw near Bellingham; Whickhope and Goatstones near Simonburn in the North Tyne Valley; Hareshaw, on Brigg Fell, to Nunwick Moor. Further east in Northumberland herds were noted in the Cheviots from Cottonshope to Cheviot itself, with goats being present on the southern (Harthope Linn) and northern (College Valley) side of Cheviot. In addition to the herds on these relatively contiguous areas of high ground, an outlying herd was reported at Thrunton Woods south of Whittingham in Northumberland. Lever (1979) reconfirms the presence of goats in these areas, although his table is based mostly on Whitehead’s 1972 data.

During the 1970s and 1980s the goats of the Borders were studied in more detail, particularly the Kielderhead herd and College Valley population in the Cheviots (McDougall, 1975; Bullock, 1982; Smith and Bullock, 1993; Gough, unpublished data, 1998). The numbers recorded during the aforementioned studies are given in Table 1:

Table 1. Numbers of Feral Goat in the North East




Source of data

College Valley 1972 26+ McDougall, 1975
1977-1980 13-14 Bullock, 1982
1992 34 Smith and Bullock, 1993
Kielderhead 1972 68 McDougall, 1975
1977-1980 54 Bullock, 1982
1992 65+ (c.100?) Smith and Bullock, 1993
1998 86+ (c.120?) Gough, unpublished data

A single billy was present on Simonside, near Rothbury, for a few years from around 2006, but has since disappeared. It is not known where he came from or how he got there. It is possible that he could have wandered from the herds in the Cheviots in Upper Coquetdale, or he may have been deliberately released on to Simonside. He became popular with walkers and regularly helped them eat their sandwiches! (A. Dewhirst, pers. comm., 2012)

It appears that the distribution of herds in Northumbria has changed markedly in the last 100 years with fewer, less widespread herds present today. Afforestation after Word War II appears to have played a major role in this with goats being culled to enable the establishment of commercial softwood plantations. Graham (1993) laments the culling of goats on Christianbury Crags for forest expansion during the 1960s. Whitehead (1972) noted that several herds, including those at Kielder and Thrunton, had already been severely reduced in size for this reason.

Today most of the herds mentioned by Whitehead (1972) are no longer present. In 2004 Lunn noted just three populations of goats in Northumberland. These three populations still exist in the Cheviot Hills on land close to the Scottish Border:

  1. The Upper Coquetdale herd centred on The Border land next to the Pennine Way from Wedder Hill to Beef Stand and Mozie Law and the western flanks of Windy Gyle within Northumberland National Park. Occasionally goats are seen as far south as Fulhope Edge (Gough, unpublished data).
  2. The north Cheviot population centred around Yeavering Bell and Newton Tors above College Valley in Northumberland National Park. Goats are not usually seen on the Cheviot Massif itself, except at times of high numbers in neighbouring populations. Billies have been seen occasionally on this ground, probably attempting to disperse between populations (Gough, unpublished data, 1998).
  3. Kielderhead National Nature Reserve (NNR) and Whitelee NNR goats are located between Deadwater and Whitelee (Tom Dearnley, pers. comm., 2012), being mainly centred on the ground between Graymare’s Knowe, Limestone Knowe, Carter Pike, Girdle Fell and Oh Me Edge (Gough, unpublished data, 1998). This is an area where McDougall (1975) also recorded goats.

These remote areas are upland sheep farms designated for landscape and wildlife conservation. Most of the ground is farmed predominantly for hill sheep. There is relatively little conflict between this extensive livestock production and the goats as there is ample hill grazing for both. However, damage to walls, inbye grazing and crops can be an issue, particularly in the north Cheviots around Yeavering Bell and West Kirknewton. In recent years some gardens in West Kirknewton have suffered damage from goats coming in during spring. Conflict also arises on land where woodland establishment is the aim. Many of the organisations and landowners involved in managing land in the Cheviots with goats, including the Forestry Commission, Ministry of Defence, Northumberland National Park Authority, Northumberland Wildlife Trust and private land owners, including College Valley Estates, have put substantial resources into monitoring the populations of goats on their land in order to inform management decisions. Table 2 gives the approximate numbers in autumn 2010.

Table 2. Estimated Feral Goat populations in autumn 2010

Population in Oct. 2010

Total Goats

Source of Data

Kielderhead and Whitelee 45 Forestry Commission census by Rangers and volunteers walking transects
Upper Coquetdale 170 Author’s discussions with shepherds
North Cheviots (Inc. College Valley Newton Tors and Yeavering) 139 North Cheviot Goat Management Group census by two Newcastle University students photographing all goats

Different techniques were used to collect the data in Table 2, so they are not comparable, nor are they completely accurate. The Kielderhead and Whitelee data are likely to be an underestimate (T. Dearnley, pers. comm., 2012). The north Cheviot data for Yeavering and the Newton Tors area is thought to be accurate given the 22 days of survey effort. The Upper Coquetdale figures may be an over-estimate as some double counting may have occurred where the same group of goats grazes on more than one farm. Given the large area and rugged terrain that the goats inhabit population counts are not easy. Counting from a low flying helicopter can be effective (A. Miller, pers. comm., 2006), but cost is usually prohibitive. So it is not possible to give an exact number, but it would appear that the overall number of Feral Goats in the Cheviot Hills (on the English side of the Border) is between 300 and 500 individuals.

Feral goat small

The Forestry Commission (FC) and Northumberland Wildlife Trust (NWT) wish to keep goats as a feature of the Kielderhead and Whitelee Moor NNRs, but at sufficiently low numbers to minimise damage to young trees on both the English and Scottish side of the Border (T. Dearnley and S. Lowe, pers. comm., 2012). In the late 1990s a deer fence was erected along the Border at Kielderhead to keep the goats on the English side of the Border. Scottish forestry operations were becoming less tolerant of goat damage and the resulting culls were threatening the long term persistence of the population. FC was advised by David Bullock to keep the population above 75 individuals. Subsequent Population Viability Analysis by the author using the model Vortex (Gough, unpublished data, 1998) suggested the population would need to be at least 120 individuals to ensure long term survival. The FC on the English side of the Border would like to see the population greater than 100 (T. Dearnley, pers. comm., 2012), but numbers are also influenced by FC policy north of the Border, and at present FC in Scotland are still regularly culling goats.

In Upper Coquetdale there is little conflict between the goats and livestock farming or the military training that takes place there. However, as more new native woodland is planted in the area to enhance the habitat for species such as Black Grouse Tetrao tetrix there is the potential need to manage the goats more proactively. Consequently Northumberland National Park Authority (NNPA) and the Ministry of Defence are hoping to organise a census and develop a management plan for the goats in Upper Coquetdale. Since 2005, monitoring and management has been undertaken for the north Cheviot population (Yeavering, Newton Tors, College Valley) through a partnership involving local landowners and farmers, NNPA, the British Feral Goat Research Group, and more recently Newcastle University. This North Cheviot Goat Management Group aims to maintain a viable population of goats in the area which is managed to minimise negative impacts on newly-planted woodlands, inbye fields and walls. The Goat Management Plan (Smith, 2005), commissioned by NNPA, provides the basis for management. The objective is to keep the goat population at between 130 and 170 individuals. When the population exceeds the upper limit, as it did when the plan was drawn up, the goats are rounded up and the appropriate number of each sex and age class are re-homed by the British Feral Goat Research Group.

Goats from this population have gone to assist with conservation grazing projects in Dumfries, Durham, Cheddar Gorge, Lynton in Devon, Portland, Windsor Great Park and Wiltshire. Some have also gone to goat breeders who specialise in the primitive British feral goat and will not cross-breed them with more modern breeds of goat (S. Goodyer, pers. comm., 2012). Only very occasionally has it been necessary to cull “problem goats” such as those that have been found regularly grazing the new woodland plantings or inbye fields. NNPA has given funding to landowners for additional fences to protect woodlands, drystone walls and inbye fields. This has helped to reduce the need to remove goats.

Newcastle University is currently undertaking GPS tracking of a small number of goats in the north Cheviot population (Yeavering, Newton Tors, College Valley) and data is in the process of being analysed (R. Bevan, pers. comm., 2012). It is hoped that advances in remote tracking technology and possible future analysis of population genetics will increase our knowledge of the ecology of Feral Goats in the region.


Written by Mary Gough (last updated Nov 12)