The Irish Goat are Coming!
Until the 1940’s much of the heathland on Howth used to be grazed by livestock and goats in particular. After the livestock disappeared, Gorse scrub and Bracken expanded and the heather vegetation increased in height over the next decades. This has resulted in a highly flammable landscape with a high fuel load. Since the 1980’s wildfires have become a regular occurrence on Howth. Historical pollen records have shown that wildfires were uncommon prior to the 1940’s due to the presence of grazing animals. There are several locations with dense and tall Gorse scrub at East Mountain, Shielmartin, and Green Hollows which have been identified as a major wildfire risk by international wildfire experts and it is proposed to tackle these areas as a matter of priority in 2020. Furthermore, a heathland status assessment undertaken in 2019 shows that the heathland on Howth is in a poor condition due to the lack of management. A combination of cutting, herbicide treatment and goat grazing is proposed to address the wildfire problems at the key locations and improve the poor habitat quality.
The goat grazing scheme would be for a 3 year period and would be run by the Old Irish Goat Society. The project would start with 25 goats that will be managed by a goat herder with sheepdogs. No-fence collars to contain the goats in a particular area will also be tested to ensure a sufficiently high grazing density to reduce the Gorse or heather where required. Temporary fencing such as the Wolf netting may be required to be set up around the grazing area as an extra security against dogs should this turn out to be a problem. Aside from tackling the Gorse, the goats can also be used to create linear firebreaks in the heather, increase structural diversity in the heather, eat any tree seedlings and reduce bracken cover. During the first couple of months the goats would be deployed in the high wildfire risk areas to open up the dense scrub vegetation. In September and October 2020, chainsaw operators and/or tractors with flails can cut back the Gorse to the ground. From next spring onwards the goats will be used to graze any regrowth from the remaining stumps and clear the many Gorse seedlings that are likely to come up in the thousands. The goats will be kept on a farm in north County Dublin and transported to Howth each morning unless a local location can be found on Howth. The herder will be on Howth 5 days a week. Once a site is sufficiently grazed, the herd will be moved to a new location to repeat the same grazing management. The goats will be on the farm in September for 3 weeks for mating purposes and between Christmas and February for kidding and no grazing management will take place during this period.
It is envisaged that the herder will also undertake Gorse management work, by cutting down mature Gorse and chip it locally with a small mobile wood chipper. This way the clearance of Gorse scrub in the high risk areas can be accelerated. The herder will also be able to dig out small Rhododendron seedlings and saplings while working on the Ben of Howth.
The first two years will follow the approach outlined above. In year 3, we would be keen to experiment with leaving a small flock of goats on East Mountain or/and Shielmartin with the nofence technology (if this has proved to contain the goats) and the herder checking on them daily. The goats will not be allowed to go feral and will be brought back to the farm on a regular basis. It is also proposed to use the mobile herd to target other problem areas such as the Seabuckthorn stands in Rush and the bramble undergrowth in the woods in Turvey Nature Park to facilitate woodland management works.
It is proposed for the Old Irish Goat Society to undertake this project. They are the only suppliers that can provide a herd of native Old Irish Goats, which has almost gone extinct. There are approx. 40 native old Irish goats remaining in Ireland and this scheme will help with increasing the numbers and showcasing an alternative use for this native Irish goat breed. This goat breed can be found on the historical pictures and paintings from Howth and it is also best adapted to the rough conditions on Howth compared to other commercial goat breeds. So not only will the goats provide a natural means of vegetation control, it will also bring alive the historical use of the heathlands on Howth.