Morvern Lines – 10.3.22

The storm-lashed rocks and cliffs of Rum are home to herds of ancient wild goats. Photograph: Iain Thornber

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The recent and unnecessary shooting of 25 wild goats from the well-established ancient herd on the barren cliffs between Kingairloch and Killmalieu in the parish of Ardgour, has, rightly, caused local outrage and makes one wonder about the craze for rewilding which we hear so much about these days.

The excuse given by those responsible was the goats were encroaching on grazing. Not so long ago there were over a thousand sheep and numerous deer between the two estates. Both have largely gone so there is more for the wild goats to eat on the hills than ever. There are no other herbivores.
Similar herds are apparently being interfered with on Rum once referred to as the ‘forbidden island’, which is renowned for its natural beauty, history and wildlife.

The island has had a turbulent history. Its beginnings lie in the kitchen middens on the floors of the many caves dotted around the coast and beneath the surface of old field-systems at the head of Loch Scresort.
For a time, Rum was inhabited by Norsemen who were replaced by the Clan Donald. After the MacDonalds came a succession of landowners, including the ignominious Macleans of Coll who, in a last act of desperation to pay off their many debtors, in 1826 summarily evicted most of the indigenous population from which the island has never recovered. Later John Bullough, an enlightened millionaire from burgeoning industrial Lancashire, arrived and tried to repay what the Macleans had taken by creating stable, long-term employment and better housing conditions. Notable among his son’s many improvements and achievements was the building and furnishing of the magnificent, much-admired and greatly envied Kinloch Castle, now on the open market despite the Scottish Government allowing it to become a semi ruin.

When the Bullough ownership came to a close, Rum was sold to the Nature Conservancy Council (now NatureScot) and a new page in its history was turned – or so it was hoped.

Of all the superlatives inherited by the NCC on Rum there were none more so than the herds of ‘wild’ goats who have made their home on the rocky crags and sea cliffs between Kilmory, Harris, Papadil and Dibidil to the south. Although all goats are descended from domestic stock and are thus ‘feral’, it is possible that those on Rum come from stock brought to the island thousands of years ago by Neolithic farmers or by later Norse invaders who are known to have carried them alive in their long ships as a source of food and clothing.

After the MacDonalds parted with Rum almost all of their small tenants were forced to leave the island and soon their goats took to the hills and became wild. The earliest document which mentions them is a report on the Hebrides compiled by John Walker, dated 1764 and 1771.

He wrote: ‘There is a great number of Goats kept upon the Island and here I found an Article of Oeconomy (sic) generally unknown in other Places. The People of Rum carefully collect the Hair of their Goats and after sorting it, send it to Glasgow where it is sold from one shilling to two shillings and 6d per pound according to its fineness, and there it is manufactured into Wigs which are sent to America.’

Feral goats isle of Jura. Photograph: Iain Thornber

Often referred to in the history books as the ‘poor man’s cow’, goats were essential to the economy of the indigenous population of Rum and elsewhere, particularly long ago when rents were often paid in kind. Their browsing habits meant they were not a threat to other grazers on the island such as sheep, cattle and deer as they were able to survive on rough vegetation. It was often lamented that when their numbers declined, scrub spread and choked the better grasses, plants and flowers.

They were primarily kept as a source of meat, butter, cheese, leather and, of course, milk, which was considered a cure for asthma and eczema.
When the craze for keeping large flocks of sheep was at its height during the 19th and 20th centuries, at least two of Rum’s landowners imported goats from the Island of Mull and the Ardnamurchan Peninsula. They did so to improve the blood stock but more importantly, to increase their numbers on the cliffs to discourage the less sure-footed sheep from venturing onto them and falling to their death. As goats dislike getting their feet wet, they seldom strayed from their dry, crag-bound haunts.

From 1980 to 2007 the Rum goats were monitored by scientists at Liverpool University studying the impact of global warming. They discovered that for every 1°c increase in mean December temperature, goats will extend their range northwards by about 1° latitude. If, however, the Gulf Stream is deflected by further climate warming, as many climatologists are now suggesting, and more continental-type winters arrive bringing a drop in winter temperatures, goat distributions will contract southwards, where they are able.

The ancient goats on the cliffs at Dibidil, Papidil, Kilmory and Harris know nothing of this, only of the primal urges that direct their actions. We may surf the ‘Net, tweet, twitter, hurtle into space and speed through the glens on super-highways, yet when we go into the hills to watch nature and see the massive gnarled, sweeping horns silhouetted against the skyline and hear the sound of the rutting he-goats echoing along the mist-wreathed cliffs, our primeval blood is stirred and our imagination disappears down the centuries. We remember the links which tie us to our own Neolithic past and experience again that ‘call of the wild’ in the strongest way imaginable.

There are reports coming out of Rum of goats being killed because they are damaging the habitat. If true, it is a shameful waste of life. Can anyone believe that after centuries of grazing by sheep, ponies, cattle and deer, that plants may be endangered because the goats have started to leave their cliff haunts to trek over wet moorland to Loch Scresort in search of a few saplings which should be protected by fencing?

The wild goats are part of Rum’s DNA. Given space and peace they will do what they have always done and both they and humans will be the richer for it. Long may they remain.

‘Get thee home my well-fed goats get thee home; the evening star draws nigh’. (Virgil 71-20 BC)