Friday, January 15, 2016

Welsh Mountain Goats

As a wildlife artist, goats are not normally a species I would consider as a subject for a painting. However, there is a wild herd that roam the mountains near my parent’s home in North Wales that often catch my eye. These creatures descend from domesticated herds and look eerily prehistoric.

I decided to make the time to watch them a little more closely. It was mid-winter and my father told me of a herd living in a disused slate quarry close to a sessile oak woodland.

These sure-footed animals are believed to originate from the Middle East and were brought over to this country by Neolithic man, who prized them for their skins, meat and milk. Iron Age farmers went on to use them, possibly because they were the only livestock that could graze Snowdonia’s precipitous crags. But the number of goats declined in the 19th century when they were replaced by sheep after the price of wool soared. The goats that were left became feral and were confined to the mountains in small isolated herds.

This herd was surprisingly difficult to locate. After an afternoon’s ‘recce’ which involved climbing up the steep sides of the slate quarry, I spotted the herd in a different, smaller, quarry. The next morning I set off long before dawn, in spite of heavy rain. I took my torch and shone the beam down to the ledge into the quarry. I could just make out their shapes in the mist. I made my way carefully down towards them, stopping 30 yards away and sheltering by the quarry face until first light. I wanted the goats to know I was there so that they could get used to my presence before I started to photograph them. But I was unsure how they would react to me.

As I took off my heavy rucksack they turned and looked my way. They kept a careful eye on me but did not move away. As the morning light began to penetrate through the mist the males, or billy goats, stood up and stretched before picking a route over the scree up to the top of the quarry. There was no way I could follow them along this dizzying route so I took the long way around the edge of the quarry.

By the time I had caught up they were grazing in the dense oak woodland that surrounds the quarry.
The goats nibbled at holly and bilberry bushes. They pruned back heather, swallowed bark, twigs, grass and even ate moss.  The saying that ‘there is nothing a goat doesn’t eat’ was evidently true and it occurred to me that this herd were actually shaping the forest floor.

All over the world I have seen how goats can destroy habitats by overgrazing them. But it was clear that here in this wet, unforgiving climate a small population is sustainable. Their population is managed and culls have taken place officially and unofficially over the years, but they have become quite iconic in the area and I doubt that they will ever be totally eradicated.

I followed them through this ancient woodland, where the tree branches were twisted and coated with moss and lichen dripping with water. It felt almost primeval, as if I was some kind of ancient herder. Back in Neolithic times wolves, bears and lynx would also have stalked these herds.
There was evidently some tension between the billy goats as they approached the females. Occasionally I got photographs of tussles between them.

By early afternoon it stopped raining. The herd wandered out of the forest gloom and into the old slate quarry. They passed the remains of tiny cottages where the slate workers once lived. I photographed them here standing dramatically against the stark mountainous landscape that is typical of Snowdonia.

They continued on heading down towards some of the lower levels of the quarry. One billy goat accidentally bumped into another, causing it to turn and fight. They both reared up on their hind legs before crashing down on one another. As their horns clashed the noise echoed off the slate walls. Argument resolved, they turned and headed on with the rest of the herd. These were the photographs I had hoped for. I crawled to within three metres of one billy goat, but stopped short when he lowered his horns and eyed me silently. I hope to capture that wild, prehistoric look in a future painting. 

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