Goats have been around for a long time. The first domesticated animals arrived around 5000 years ago with Neolithic farmers and were used, as the name would suggest, as farmyard animals. The wild goat, or capra aegagrus, is native to the Middle East.
Goat hair was much in demand for wig making in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, fashions changed and many goat herds were simply abandoned around this time. This also coincided with the migration of people from rural areas into the cities and the Highland clearances.
Nowadays we have what are termed feral goats. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 considers them to be a non-native species and they could not be said to be native – now, or in the future. That makes it an offence to release goats into the wild in Scotland.
Some Scottish feral goat herds have been established for a long time and may be described as naturalised . Feral goats are an invasive non-native species with the potential to cause serious damage to habitats.
Feral goat herds are held in affection by people and often have strong local cultural links. They are an example of the hardy types of livestock breeds in Scotland before the agricultural revolution. In many places they provide opportunities for wildlife watching. Goats are incredibly widely distributed but often quite difficult to spot because of the way their coats have bred back to dark colours and their predilection for grazing on often steep and broken craggy hill ground.
Some of the best spots to see them are at the wild goat park in Galloway Forest Park, Rum National Nature Reserve (NNR), Creag Dubh near Newtonmore, South Lochness-side, Ardgour, Mull, Ardnamurchan, North Morar, Strathfarrar and Dundonell (near Ullapool), Kerrera off Oban, the Oa on Islay and Colonsay where they have been seen climbing around within the low growing oaks. .
They may be a fascinating spectacle, but goats have to be managed as they can cause damage to native woodlands and scrub.The International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN) lists feral goats as one of the 100 worst invasive non-native species globally. In Scotland, there is evidence feral goats are contributing to grazing pressures on at least 18 different protected nature conservation sites. The habitats most affected by goats are woodlands, willow and juniper scrub and vegetation on cliff ledges.
Feral goat populations have the potential to increase in size rapidly if they are not controlled properly. They can also cause damage to young trees in forestry plantations. Wildlife managers must actively manage herds of feral goats to control numbers.
Trying to estimate how many goats are out there is a tricky art. In 1993, the RSPB estimated that there were at least 45 herds scattered throughout the Highlands and Islands and southern uplands. Estimates vary from just under 3,000 to over 4,000 feral goats in Scotland. But scientists think the overall population has remained constant since the late 1960s.