I didn’t think when I started working for the National Trust that I would spend a day climbing Cheddar Gorge on the lookout for goats. But a few weeks ago, that was exactly what I did.
Along with a group of students from Hartpury College, I was there to help the rangers with their annual count of feral goats and the rare Soay sheep.
The first thing that strikes you when you arrive at the foot of the Gorge, situated in the Mendip Hills, is that this truly is a unique and spectacular landscape. Measuring five km long and an incredible 122 metres deep, it is England’s largest gorge which began forming during the last Ice Age.
The goats and sheep are, as you would imagine, hardy breeds that in a seemingly magical manner cling to the edges of the sheerest cliffs. These animated lawnmowers were introduced on to the Gorge to stop the growth of new trees, encouraging greater biodiversity, such as the Cheddar Pink, rare butterflies, reptiles and Greater horseshoe bats.
By keeping a clear record of their numbers, the yearly counts allow the National Trust to monitor the populations and track any changes which helps to inform management decisions.
Dr David Bullock, our Head of Nature Conservation, said: “The annual checks help us to estimate the rate of increase in the numbers of goats and sheep. Using this information we can infer their impact on the vegetation now and in the future. It’s about getting the right levels of grazing pressure and browsing pressure so that the sheep eat enough grass to promote the flowers and the goats do enough browsing to control the unwanted scrub, without damaging the rare whitebeams.”
This year’s count revealed that there were 76 feral adult sheep on the Gorge, (50 of which were ewes) and 16 lambs; 14 goats were spotted (all apart from one of these were nannies) and 11 kids. As you can see, there weren’t too many males about – apparently they disappear but will appear again during the mating season, the October rut. It would be great to fit them with trackers so that we can see exactly where they go… or keep it simple and use a bell.
Unfortunately, the small group that I went out with seemed to pick the sheep and goat-free walk! Despite covering what seemed like miles (those rangers are seriously fit!), we only managed to spot two goats in almost two hours. Luckily however, when walking back to the car park I spotted this mother and her kids teetering on the edge. I almost gave myself vertigo trying to hold the camera steady while looking up, but I think it was worth it…
So, what next? Well, the National Trust, including rangers and volunteers from the Gorge will be visiting Hartpury to hold a discussion group with the students and they’ll be thinking about how we can adapt our management to meet their needs.
If you’re heading to Cheddar Gorge make sure you keep an eye out for these features of the landscape, especially during the October rut – look up and admire just how they manage to stay standing! Because in real life, they’re even better than any YouTube video.