Old Irish goats return to County Dublin to protect hills from wildfires

Melissa Jeuken beat stiff competition to land a high-profile post in Dublin leading a dream team of diligent, focused workers.

“They’re a very good crew to work with. We gelled very quickly. It just clicks.”

Some bully the others, and one has a habit of leaping into her arms, but Jeuken is OK with that. The 25-strong team is made up of goats, and Jeuken is their herder.

They are part of a groundbreaking conservation Irish effort to save a goat species from extinction and to protect a hillside from wildfires.

It is the all the more striking for its location in Howth, a peninsula overlooking Dublin city centre, including the offices of Google and Facebook.

Jeuken, 31, started the job last week after beating dozens of other applicants for the €45,000-a-year (£38,000) post.

The goats are tasked with eating overgrown vegetation that fuels wildfires, most recently in July when 65 acres burned, pluming dark smoke over 爱尔兰’s capital. The city’s fire brigade and the Irish Air Corps struggled to control it.

“When I first heard about the job I thought, ‘goats in Dublin?’ Goats need a mountain,” said Jeuken, who grew up on her family’s farm in County Clare. “So I went to see Howth and I thought, 哇, it’s really beautiful here.”

Goat herding is a timeless profession – the Old Testament chronicled it – but this latest incarnation involves DNA and satellite tracking technology.

Some things don’t change, said Jeuken. “The trick is to be trusted by them and accepted by them, as one. Herding is a relationship between animal and man. You want to be operating as one.”

Fingal county council decided to act after wildfires became bigger and more frequent, threatening Howth village and homes around the hillsides. “With climate change the risk of fires will go up,” said the council’s biodiversity officer, Hans Visser.

In spring the council used heavy machinery to carve fire breaks to help contain future fires.

Left unchecked gorse, a hardy shrub, will swiftly grow back, sabotaging the fire breaks, said Visser. “We can either maintain this landscape with machinery or goats. The goats will graze whatever comes back up and keep it nice and short.”

The council contracted the Old Irish Goat Society, which has been working for a decade to save Ireland’s only indigenous goat from extinction, to supply a herd.

Ireland’s original goats – small, tough, adapted to mountains – all but disappeared after being cross-bred with imported species.

The society, based in Mulranny, a village overlooking the Atlantic in county Mayo, uses DNA to guide a breeding programme to revive the Old Irish goat.

“Our goats come from the mountains and eat whatever’s there, scrub, heather, gorse. They’re the most suitable for this task,” said Pádraic Browne, the society’s chair. “We’re giving our beautiful little creatures a job to do, which they’re doing. They’re not just a tourist attraction. They can earn their keep.”

The society’s advertisement for a “conservation grazing specialist” for the three-year pilot programme drew more than 100 applicants.

Jeuken, 31, had an edge: she ran her own herd on her family farm, earning the nickname “the goat lady”. Last year she graduated as a veterinary nurse.

She spent a few weeks at Mulranny getting to know the Old Irish goats, and letting them get to know her, before their move to Dublin.

Trust is key. Unlike sheep, which can be driven forward, goats will only follow, so the herder must walk ahead, said Jeuken. “They’re a bit sexist: they respond better to females than males.”

Jeuken lives in a nearby house and works from a small wooden office next to a shed where the goats spend the night. She greets them with bleating sounds and supplements their foraging with poultry mix.

The adult goats have a collar for GPS tracking. It also beeps and gives a small shock if they cross an invisible boundary, part of a Norwegian-designed “no-fence” system to keep them in the right place.

The herd – 14 nannies and 11 kids – is to be bolstered by adult males, bucks, and to eventually number around 100. Jeuken described her charges as shy, tough and passionate about their mission in the Irish capital. “It’s their job but they’re happy to do it.”

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